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Lisa Jarnot

Robert Duncan —
The Ambassador from Venus


The Early Years

from “Robert Duncan: a Biography”, a manuscript in preparation.

This piece is 8,600 words or about twenty printed pages long.

Endnotes are given at the end of this file.
Click on the note to be taken to it; likewise to return to the text.

Chapter Twelve: The Wasteland

“...your resemblances and ‘recognitions’ may mark you as a Symmes on the broad canvas of Duncan.”
                              — Edna Keough to Robert Duncan, undated letter

During the fall of 1927, Edwin and Minnehaha Symmes made a decision again based on an astrological forecast drawn by the elders of the Hermetic Brotherhood. The family was to leave Alameda for Bakersfield, California. The move marked a turning point — it was the last time that the imperatives of the cosmos took precedence over household decision-making based on more earthly socio-economic principles. With the relocation, the Symmes’s connection to the Northern California occult circle was geographically severed and as their religious practices were phased out, Edwin and Minnehaha began to re-invent themselves as upwardly mobile non-denominational suburbanites.
     In Bakersfield, a town with thirty years of history and development behind it, Edwin Symmes saw the promise of a professional practice of his own. Not long after the family’s arrival during October of 1927 he found employment as a public works architect. For the family as a whole however there were adjustments to be made. They had landed in a desert valley three hundred miles south of friends, relatives and the urban sophistication of the Bay Area. The Symmeses moved into a one-story adobe cottage at 1908 Verde Street not far from a row of tar-covered streets classified as downtown. The new living arrangements differed considerably from the shady angular property in Alameda, and the transition was not as effortless as had been foretold by the stars. The children, now uprooted from the indulgences of their grandmother and aunts, found themselves dependent on Minnehaha for attention. When she suffered an allergic reaction to the San Joaquin Valley’s foliage during the summer of 1928, she retreated to bed, sipping medicinal lemon water prescribed by a physician. By the following year her condition had burgeoned into a chronic incapacitating hay fever that periodically left her confined to a back room specifically built to facilitate her recovery.
     Meanwhile, eight-year-old Robert and his younger sister familiarized themselves with the neighborhood, pedaling their bicycles up and down Verde Street past the low flat cottages and palm trees, and around the nearby Roosevelt Elementary School where they were enrolled that fall. In an era that preceded air conditioning they took refuge at night on the enclosed sleeping porch at the front of the house, perfecting their storytelling skills and nodding off amidst the din of field crickets. As he grew older, Duncan found himself drawn to the boundaries and banks of the Kern River just north of the city’s main artery Truxton Avenue. He rarely admitted to fond memories of the geography or culture of Bakersfield, but the locale seeped into his creative life in delicate reveries. In a poem written decades later he remembered the place he had sometimes characterized as a suburban hell:

the wilderness beyond the edge of town, the riverbottom road,
to find some wanton promise the derelict landscape most portrayed in me,
the fog’s sad density of cold,
in me, the solitary and deserted paths,
in me, the marshy wastes, the levee road
where day after day as if driven by the wind
I impatiently strode... [100]

Within the derelict landscape there was an alternating force of growth. The city’s namesake, Colonel Thomas Baker, had been responsible for first transforming the southern portion of San Joaquin Valley swamplands into alfalfa fields during the 1860s. Those fields became incorporated into a town of Kern County in 1898 and became the seat of an active grape and cotton farming industry. While the strips of city streets lie flat in the valley, mountains rise up on the horizon  — to the west, the Temblor Range; to the south, the Tehachapi range and to the east, the Sierra Nevada that extend into Northern California. Along the foothills are grazing areas for sheep and cattle, and with surrounding oil-rich land, Bakersfield’s population quickly swelled throughout the early part of the twentieth century.
     As part of the middle-class in the post-war quiet of the early 1920s, Edwin and Minnehaha Symmes maintained a household that was economically stable and politically conservative. Those traits were ingrained in their children early — money would always be an organizing point for Duncan, whether it was in his battles with his mother over his trust fund and allowance, or in his obsessive financial record keeping while on reading and lecture tours. During the 1930s Duncan dabbled with the bohemian instincts that so characterized his peers in the world of counter-culture poetry, but the material comforts of a household were often at the center of his thoughts, and as he said in an interview in 1976, “When I was a child I was always wanting to play household and house...” [101]
     As for the politics of the household, the Symmes’s views and biases were by no means unlike those of their neighbors. While Bakersfield hosted a significant number of Chinese and Japanese immigrants, they were relegated to labor as gardeners and cooks, and many of the Japanese students who attended high school alongside Duncan were subsequently interred in American prison camps during the Second World War. Basque farmers from the French and Spanish Pyrenees also came to the Central Valley during the Gold Rush era, finally settling in Bakersfield to dominate the shepherding industry. The deluge of foreigners entering the United States during the early part of the century led to new Congressional immigration restrictions and an unprecedented spike in Ku Klux Klan activity. By 1924 the Klan had reached its peak, boasting a membership of nearly five million.
     In lectures and interviews Duncan made occasional references to his family’s anti-Semitism, and he also made note that his parents “thought they were very adventuresome when they had some Catholic friends.”[102] With that in mind, Duncan deemed his mother “a Ku Klux Klan democrat,” though his sister Barbara preferred to characterize her more benignly as a woman who distinguished herself in the community by caring for those in need. Edwin Symmes aligned himself with traditional Republican politics, as evinced by one of his daughter’s early memories of the Verde Street house. Waking one morning she found that her father had slipped into her bedroom and pasted a sign across her wall that read, “Hoover Wins — Hurray!”[103]
     In a small town in an era of increasing social discretion, Edwin and Minnehaha Symmes developed a certain prudence about their public activities. And as Duncan wrote of his parents in The H.D. Book:

They were isolated from their Brotherhood, their studies changed to studies that were respected by the community into which they had moved. By the time I was adolescent, my father was involved in the study of botany and local historical sites. After his death, Mother was relieved, I think, that this way of studying things might be dismissed. New friends did not share her belief — that was part of it — but then, though her belief may have lasted, her interest did not last. [104]

The Symmeses also briefly sent Robert and Barbara to a Congregational Sunday School[105], and Edwin Symmes joined a local chapter of Masons, ascending its ranks with evident ease.
     Almost overnight Duncan had lost his status as a phantom from an underwater kingdom. He was now eldest son of middle-class professionals. His parents’ social anxieties spawned a new network of apprehensions that Duncan carried with him into adulthood. In 1941 he wrote in a notebook:

Last night in a dream I sat with my family at a dinner — a political discussion arose and my hatred of this world of adults surged up — the boy who had sat trying to perform within the adult salon broke wild — I threw a plate of soup at my aunt, I broke a tureen of hot vegetables over my mother’s head — I hate their world — yet always it intrudes — my duties in their world destroy my inner world of childhood — watering the lawns, practising the piano, setting the tables — I upset the dinner table and walkd [sic] from the room...[106]

Caught in a paradox of influences, Duncan arrived at a compromise regarding his parents — the child who had never been initiated became the poet-archivist of the Symmes’s theosophical history. In his poems, essays and lectures the theme was repeated:

What was left me from the talk of the elders in that antechamber of my childhood was now all my own. My parents, living far from the center of things, were concerned with security and status, the politics and business opportunities of Bakersfield: our religion became something we did not talk about to everybody. I talked to myself about it. [107]

When not conversing with himself, he communicated his ideas in written form, penning his first poems in 1928. One enduring keepsake of that era is a Bell-Wether Invincibles cigar box, decorated with colored construction paper, inside of which he safeguarded “Poems by Robert E. Symmes” dedicated to “the bestest grandma in the world from her grandson”.[108] The collection included a number of “occasional” poems either written or transcribed by the nine-year-old for “Thanksgiving,” “Roosevelt’s Birthday,” and “Spring”:

Baby life in fields does play
Cherries are ripe, birds are gay,
Between them all they raise a cheer,
Sweet cherries are ripe, spring is here.[109]

As a complement to the poems, he cut strips of construction paper into geometric shapes and glued them against each other at odd angles in a pattern akin to a Cubist composition. The montage of blues, oranges, reds, and greens were arranged into the shape of a castle with tin foil spires. Empires fascinated him. As he reported in The H.D. Book, he periodically amused himself with an “Atlantis phantasy” facilitated by his parents’ Mah Jong tiles:

I had had to build with utmost care and grandeur my little piled-up city or kingdom with many levels, for in the care, piece by piece, a place for something to happen was prepared, an other realm was built up.... What I would see then was the monolithic real building I was engaged in, coming into existence block by block and yet the blocks themselves coming into existence in the building, out of what they were — the imposing gleam of the red dragon and green dragon walls, the mysterious symbols of the Chinese game with its winds and flowers converted into ancient glyphs and signs of a fated citadel.[110]

On occasion, Duncan tried to include his sister Barbara in his imaginative productions, though she often failed to see the point of the activities. She remembered being coerced into sketching portraits of her enthusiastic older brother. When she attempted to opt out of the art lesson citing a lack of confidence in her abilities, Duncan insisted that she persevere, prodding her to “just keep drawing.” He was intent on having an apprentice.[111]  And in those moments that his tomboyish younger sister managed to escape his grip, Duncan retreated by himself to the dusty volumes that he found on his parents’ bookshelves and in the Beale Memorial children’s library downtown. In addition to the Oz series, Kipling’s Jungle Books, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels that kept him occupied into his teen years. There was nothing strange about reading in the Symmes household, but Duncan’s habits of reading took on a new distinction, he seemed able to recite the contents of a book before opening its pages.[112]



Chapter Thirteen: The Dweller on the Threshold

With the two-year anniversary of the Symmes’s move to Bakersfield, bad news came on several fronts. Throughout the fall of 1929 Minnehaha was ill again, and on October 19, word came from Berkeley that the family matriarch, Mary Harris, had died in her sleep one day short of her 74th birthday. The Symmeses departed for the Bay Area, where at 10 a.m. on October 22, Harris’s ashes were interred at the Chapel of the Chimes Mausoleum in the Oakland Hills with a religious service directed by the Hermetic Brotherhood. Six days later the Stock Market crashed. An American economy that had given the illusion of stability during the early part of the 1920s came to a standstill. At the peak of the crisis nearly a third of the country was unemployed.
     In the aftermath of those events, Minnehaha reported that in March of 1930, eleven year old Robert was “extremely nervous”.[113] Adding to the stress of familial transitions came other disruptions — during the winter of 1930, Duncan was transferred from the neighborhood elementary school to Bakersfield’s William Penn School where he completed the sixth grade, and the following autumn he began junior high school. In the meantime, during April of 1931 the Symmeses moved from Verde Street to a house at 2330 Truxton Avenue on the corner of A Street. The house was nearer to downtown, parallel to the railroad tracks of the Southern Pacific line, and two blocks from the tree-lined Jastro Park where the children played after school. The house was also larger than their abode on Verde Street. In addition to affording the near-pubescent children separate bedrooms for the first time, there was a den upstairs where Edwin Symmes entertained his friends and sometimes challenged his daughter Barbara to a game of pool.[114]
     With the beginning of the Depression years the Symmes’s economic status changed first for the worse, and then for the better. In the end they adapted better than most. Edwin and Minnehaha were both college-educated professionals, and their children fitted into the track of the privileged college-bound in the Bakersfield community. At Emerson Junior High School Duncan was integrated into an advanced group of students under the supervision of one of the school system’s most respected teachers Mrs. Millie Munsey.[115] He continued to excel academically, again to the puzzlement of his sister who rarely saw him study. He also had his first taste of extra-curricular activities, signing on as a fledgling reporter for the school newspaper, The Emersonian, and later becoming its editor.
     By 1932 when Duncan was beginning high school, children in Chicago were rioting in the streets, begging to be fed. Throughout American cities protests broke out and hungry masses of the unemployed demanded food, shelter, and work from the Hoover government. The gap that had opened between the upper and working classes over the previous decade left the Symmeses on the comfortable side of the poverty line, as did Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s allocation of money for public works projects when he assumed office in January of 1933. Symmes had voted for Hoover, but it was Democrat FDR who kept him employed during the mid-1930s. At times when it was difficult for Edwin to find work, he kept the family afloat by drawing off of his life insurance policy, and a secondary strategy in making ends meet was established by renting rooms in the new house to a kindergarten teacher named Mary Tyson and her brother Royal.


Chapter Fourteen: The Emersonian

And spring holds love
Not one
But many loves
Each love complete
Mysterious and new...
                              — Robert Duncan, ca. 1935

During the children’s summer breaks, Bakersfield’s unpleasant heat and Minnehaha’s allergies gave reason for continued trips to the ocean. The usual venue was Morro Beach, but during August of 1931 the Symmeses also visited Hollywood Beach and during December of 1931 they traveled to Berkeley to celebrate Christmas with Fayetta Philip. It seems to have been the annual visits to the Pacific that later made the ocean a regular visitor to Duncan’s poems — as he said in a less optimistic moment, “she” is “Grand Mer,” who “takes us with her inevitably/ away from the light, westward,/ into the undertow and night of our species.”[116] Within that image Duncan unified three unmanageable forces in his life — nature, the muse, and his mother Minnehaha.
     In the shadow of the cliffs of an inactive volcano known as Morro Rock, the Pacific became an Atlantis in Duncan’s imagination. He recalled that during the early years of the Depression he would “lie awake before going off to sleep at the summer cottage at Morro Beach, letting the crash of the surf take over and grow enormous”[117] Reveling in his fantasies of apocalypse, he allowed the summer trips to claim a less sinister place in his memory as well. “A Glimpse” from Groundwork I gives shape to that vision:

           Come, yellow broom
and lavender in bloom...
hot and dreaming in the morning sun,
I ever from where I am return,
as if from this boyhood privacy
my life burnd on in a smoke of me,
mixt with sage in the summer air
          and lavender,
and the stream from its shade
runs down to the bay and beyond to the sea.[118]

Duncan’s boyhood privacies assumed new dimensions as he moved toward adolescence and negotiated through a series of vague prohibitions related to the carnal world — he found himself devoid of a vocabulary to describe or acknowledge his early masturbation experiences, and he was later aware of the extent of the secrecy in his household regarding sexual activity. The enlightened visions of early European psychoanalysis and the sexual revolution of the Roaring Twenties had stopped short of the Symmes’s door. In a lecture given in 1963 Duncan reported:

I had no picture of what a sexual act would be. The most reference that would ever be made to my sexual organs would be my aunt saying  “now you know you never take all your clothes off at the same time. You take your shirt off and you put the top of your pajamas on.” ... you kept this secret that was going to come out of this egg at some point, you kept it beautifully in a shell”.[119]

Duncan assimilated those prohibitions into his libidinous instincts. Unlike his sexually liberated Beat Generation counterpart Allen Ginsberg, he aligned himself with the proscribed sexuality that he had first encountered in the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Of his own impulses Duncan disclosed, “I understand what Lawrence says when he says ‘Do not touch me, for touch is charged and not familiar.’ That whole world of the Greek gods was the world of do-not-touch-me.”[120] Crushes and flirtation were his specialty, and throughout the poems of his adult years, the act of sexualizing was veiled in complex metaphor.[121]
     In point of fact, Duncan’s most explicit poems were his earliest. He mischievously noted that during his adolescence iambic pentameter had been his form of choice, given its repetitive masturbatory beat.[122] A sketch entitled “His Body” falls into the miscellany of that period —

Now pale as magnolia and blue in the starlight
The flesh of the thigh ‘gainst the dark of his pubes
Stood stark and alive, and his body clear shining
Translucent — a light in the void of the darkness
Above his pale forehead the dark hair ran gleaming
And sharp from the cold, his dark eyes shown yet darker
His dark eyes, so frightened, so huge in the shadows
And bracing his hands to the cool of her shoulder
He poised as if listening and swayed scarcely moving.[123]

The ambivalence of object choice conveyed through much of Duncan’s early writing again pointed to his incomplete vocabulary regarding sexual activities. He sought out heterosexual and homosexual experiences side by side during his adolescent years, but “normal” sexual pleasure was still a taboo subject in his teenage world, and even when he arrived upon the liberal grounds of Berkeley, his new acquaintances found it difficult to understand his first descriptions of himself as a homosexual. As one friend mused, “Who knew what it meant?” [124]By Duncan’s account, his mother knew what it meant, as did his classmates at Kern County Union High School who called him “Sissie Symmes”. One peer remembered, “He was certainly not an athlete and at that time knew he was probably homosexual.”[125]
     At home, Duncan’s bond with his stepfather contributed to his benign and affectionate feelings toward men. Duncan characterized Edwin Symmes in a variety of ways, sometimes as an intellectual versed in Masonic lore, and other times as an unimaginative but successful public works architect. When Symmes left the house each morning, there was little indication to his neighbors that there was anything odd about his private life. He was recognized as a young professional, a member of the City Planning Commission, a responsible father and husband. But as Duncan remembered in a notebook entry written during 1978, “My father came to himself, came to his self, in the mysteries and in the Hermetic Cabbalism of my mother’s family religion.”[126] When not absorbed in the work related to his professional practice, Edwin Symmes quietly integrated his mother-in-law’s mysticism into his thoughts, and it was he, with Mary Harris, who had first undertaken “the study, drawing and contemplation of Hebrew letters,” in an attempt to unlock secret messages given by the cosmos.[127]
     Duncan sometimes exaggerated his stepfather’s interest in the occult, but it is at least clear that Edwin Symmes cared deeply about affairs of the imagination. It was Minnehaha who read to the children at night, but it was her husband Edwin who brought home a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasury of Children’s Stories and it was Edwin who designed the Symmes family bookplates which were carefully pasted into the front of each of the household’s books, complete with a sketch of their former abode in Alameda, and a shield with the family motto “Droit Et Loyal.”[128]
     Edwin Symmes tutored his stepson in architectural drafting and Duncan remembered how he was groomed to follow in his stepfather’s footsteps: “...I was praised in the very beginning for drawing and for every sign... They expected an architect. And they trained me for an architect.”[129] Through Symmes’s encouragement, Duncan developed an interest in mathematics early on, excelling in geometry, a punning image which he later conjured in the love poem “Circulations of the Song”: “I will take up geometry again./ The mysteries of here and there, above and below,/ now and then, demand new/ figures of me.”[130] Where architecture occurred in Duncan’s poems, it was linked to homoerotic longing. And while his vocational attentions were quickly drawn away from his stepfather’s, he found a way to internalize the early influences. As he told an interviewer in 1985:

what I notice is that I architect my poems. One of the main things that I remember learning in architecture is that rooms are not just square boxes. You design how people move through them and so that’s [a] projected imagination already of how you’re not going to live in a room, but how you’re going to go from one passageway to another. So, it’s very natural that I would eventually have a long poem called “Passages.”[131]

Duncan’s longings in the realm of the sensual may have also evolved out of a secondary feature of Edwin Symmes’s personality — he spent long hours at his office, was distracted in a haze of cigarette smoke, and often retreated to the garage on weekends to tinker with a new-fangled ham radio. Barbara Jones remembered a remoteness in her stepfather; she saw in him the figure of a man conflicted about involving himself emotionally in the activities of his children.[132] Duncan recorded a similar thought in a notebook:

my father...never did what he did not want to do — [he] always was doing what was like a hobby for him — at the office his architecture — at home architecture, photography, stamps, astrology, flower slides as a hobby. ... my mother would call me from my own hobbies — she would consider my drawing, writing, reading as criminal — as it interfered with my changing the hose on the lawns in the summer. I understand now that she hated me — because it was my father she hated — it was my father who did nothing, who never could be disturbed to do these tedious little errands that laid the weight on me. It was my father who forgot things, who left his desks in a disorder of many objects, who left his socks on the floor...[133]

By mid-adolescence, Duncan’s sexual identity was taking form out of two complimentary Oedipal dramas — an identification with Minnehaha in her obstinacy and her episodic furies, and a desire to win over his aloof stepfather. Duncan kept both stories active into his adult life. Though he repeatedly rejected his stepmother as a source of grief, he had dutifully internalized her libidinous predispositions — setting off to court quiet bookish men, many of them conspicuously like Edwin Symmes in physique and character.


Chapter Fifteen: Spring at Sixteen

“I was a poet who started without talent.”
                              — Robert Duncan, Vancouver, 1963

During his freshman year at Kern County Union High School, Duncan enrolled in six classes — English Composition, English Literature, Algebra, French, History, and Physical Education.[134] An A student, except for in the subject described as “Military”, there was hardly a moment when he wasn’t busily engaged in one event or another which allowed him to show off his prowess as a speaker and writer — he participated in the Debate Luncheon Club, was a member of the high school dramatics club Props and Paints, took part in the senior play, was an assistant editor of the yearbook, and was on the staff of the school newspaper, The Blue and White.
     With his hair cropped short, he was a block-headed kid, and his thick glasses exaggerated his inability to control the drift of his wayward eye. But despite his girlish gestures and the appellation Sissie Symmes, he managed to make friends easily, and gained some respect from his peers as a writer. As his sister later remarked, “everyone was his friend.”[135 ] And in the class prophecy of his 1936 high school yearbook, The Oracle, the following prediction appeared: “Bakersfield, California, June 5, 1951... Robert Symmes writes risque novels under an alias and is really doing well.” Duncan was in fact writing substantial narratives by that point, not risque, but fantastic. Once again he returned to an early childhood theme —

Thousands of years ago there lived on the island of Atlantis an ancient and noble family, the House of Bird-of-Gold. It was one of this illustrious house who in the latter era of the Empire led the third expedition against the barbarians of the Australian wastes. The legend of the family was that Marc one of the sons of Adam had brought from the Garden a Bird of Gold. The family of Marc lived in the mountains of Persia for seven to the seventh generation and then it came to pass that Noom who was of that house stole the sacred bird from the family ark and fled into Atlantis. This was in the beginning of time and the House of the Bird-of-Gold was one of the oldest clans on that famous island by the time of which I write which was in the reign of Cronos the last Emperor.[136]

The four page account of the last days of Atlantis revealed a predilection for the lavish that distinguished his early writing; and the characters within the piece were presented in a melodrama of gossip and bickering that echoed Duncan’s critique of his parents’ household —

The mother of Hadius was the lovely Cretan actress Meme who in the dance of the Tapirs before the King of the Western World had brought his proposal of marriage and it was rumored especially among the Lower Orders who disliked Hadius intensely that he had no claim to the name of the House of the Bird-of-Gold, but was the bastard of an affair between his mother and the Emperor Cronos himself....
     “Did you hear..” Meme spoke across the table as soon as the servant carried out the soups. “Did you hear that Madlyn of the House of the Silver Horn was left?”
     “Left?” Alise was suddenly interested.
     “It was terribel [sic]..” Meme gloated. “She had a quarrel with her husband and he slipped out of port without her. Set sail and left her at the dock screaming and beating against the railings. She went completely insane.”
     “The royal family left two days ago.” Caldus said.
     “It was so noble of them to have stayed so long to keep up the spirit of the common people.”...

     Now Lydia spoke. “We are going,” she said. “We are going to the mountain fortress where we shall await the last Day. Tonight is the last night we may move our treasures from the Low City. The Sacred Orders have sealed themselves with the archives of the Empire and await the Catastrophe. The stars move even now and the caravan shall set out at dawn for the mountains north.[137]

Duncan remembered around this time, in the midst of his studies of French, Latin, and History during his sophomore and junior years of high school, having the thought of becoming a poet. He reported that he “went to the library...and found out that the most any poet had made that year was $400.”[138] The poet was Ogden Nash, a staff writer for The New Yorker whose odd rhyming off-color portraits were mimicked by Duncan in short derivations he wrote during the mid-1930s:

O once I was gay, Lilly would simmer.
I’ve still got my bust, and nothing is primmer
Than my 22 waist. But I’ve got this damn liver
Along with my bust and my model T flivver.
O I was once gay but I’ve still got my liver
As such I drink tea (see her lips quiver...[139]

Duncan found a new solace in writing that coincided with the advent of his teen years. An additional sense of independence came as his parents spent more of their own time engaged in the business of the architectural practice, now a respected local partnership called Willard and Symmes. With both children entering a more autonomous phase of life, Edwin and Minnehaha found time to travel on their own — to the 1932 Olympic games in Los Angeles, to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, and to Washington, D.C. where Fayetta Philip was continuing her studies of Francis Bacon and William Shakespeare at the Folger-Shakespeare Library. When she was at home, Minnehaha Symmes was engrossed in her social pursuits and in a nearly compulsive interest in the kitchen gadgets of the 1930s, allowing Duncan to escape and find his own adventures at the local movie theater and Michener’s hamburger stand on 18th Street downtown.


Chapter Sixteen: The End of the Corridor

He watched the fresh rebellious waves as they crashed in clouds of silvered spray on the rocks and into the blue of the sky. He watched the full, deep swells and the fleeting caps of foam blown by the wind; and in all he saw a force that was life and greater. Sometimes as he nodded there in the sun under the peace tree, he felt himself as a part of the vast silence, a part in the great movements in a continual night of ocean depths. Then he felt he should die that way. He would be swept on by the swifter forces, on and on, and up now dashing against the rocks, up through the jewelled spray and back into the cool depths of the sea.
                              — Robert Duncan, “Transit”

It was 1935, the summer that sixteen-year-old Robert Duncan slept on a patio under the veil of mosquito nets, in a courtyard behind the bungalows of the Santa Barbara beachfront. From the shadows came the roar of the waves as the beach swelled beneath the cliff bluffs. He was surrounded by orchard trees of oranges and lemons — lush plants filled out the perimeter of the patio. It seemed like a jungle, with big-eared green leaves, and miniature palm trees. There were paintings on the walls of the cottage, paintings of pirate ships.[140]
     It was also the year that Edwin Symmes died. He had suffered a heart attack in August while on one of the family trips, and returned to Bakersfield alone to recuperate. On Tuesday September 10th he died of a second massive heart attack while at the house on Truxton Avenue. He had been expected to join the family again over the weekend but as Barbara Jones remembered, her stepmother had a trepidatious feeling that Tuesday morning, and phoned the house in Bakersfield. She had voiced suspicions to the children that something was amiss. It was, she said, one of her psychic premonition. There had been others — such as on a day when she was working in the architecture office and a man arrived, sending waves of repulsion through her body. When she looked at him more closely she noticed that his hand was mangled and that he was missing a finger.[141  ]
     Edwin Symmes had been in failing health for some time — his smoking habit had contributed to his death at the age of fifty-two, as had his anxieties about supporting his wife and two children during the Depression years. As Duncan wrote in a notebook in 1941:

My father had a different way of aging, of being old in the beginning like a tree — there was no death in him — all of him burned thin and furious inside — He was never angry with us, he had no hate for us, no passion yet you felt all the hatred and passion and sex was there hurrying inside of him like a great redwood or a mountain burning forever until there was only ash.”[142]

Duncan processed the loss in a two-fold manner, through writing, and through nascent homosexual explorations. His stepfather’s death formed a theme in his late adolescent stories, particularly in the short piece variously titled “The Meek One,” and “Transit” written around the time of Edwin’s death about a widower named Joseph, Edwin Symmes’s middle name. Duncan associated his stepmother Minnehaha with water, but Edwin was a source of fire, elusive and frail:

When it was dark outside and cold, he sat in the shadow inside staring at the fire. He felt that death was a flame, burning clear and blue and at its rim gold. The empty night was peace, and the empty flame was peace. He felt that death was peace and dreamed of death.[143]

On Thursday, September 12, the Bakersfield Californian announced plans for Symmes’s funeral service, to be held on the following afternoon at 2 p.m. His death was a headline that week, and the newspaper described the Masonic rites held in his honor in great detail reporting that “So greatly beloved was Mr. Symmes in civic life, many organizations have passed resolutions of sorrow at his death...”[144] The service was presided over by the Bakersfield Commandery of Knights Templar and a local boy scout troop. One of the honorary pallbearers was a friend of Symmeses named Lewis J. Burtch who three years later married the widow Minnehaha.
     After the ceremonies in Bakersfield, Symmes’s body was transported to the California Crematorium Columbarium on Piedmont Avenue in Berkeley. There, another service was a service for him on the morning of September 14, at 10:30 a.m. after which his ashes were interred in the in the Guidance Garden of the Chapel of the Chimes Mausoleum in Oakland. Within the week, the children returned to school in Bakersfield and Robert Duncan began his final year of high school.


Chapter Seventeen: The Fathering Dream

“Ghosts and lovers of my sixteenth year, old themes
and changing keys of a persisting music,
here, the colors face, I cannot recall the face, there,
some pattern revivifies the scheme. What
was the accurate contour of the fathering dream?”

                              — Robert Duncan,
                              Marginalia from Thom Gunn’s Moly

Bakersfield, California is famous for its springtime wildflowers. Duncan often set out on long walks along the banks of the Kern River, where he had a view of fields of yellow poppies along the horizon. The river was a substantial hike from the house and residential area of town, but he found himself drawn there, sometimes during the day when he was supposed to be attending classes, other times in the evenings after dinner. He remembered his adolescent transitions in this way:

I was just emerging from the mythosexual dream-world of my junior and senior years at highschool — a world so associated with the tule fogs of winter Bakersfield and the Kern River country beyond our house and with the late spring heats of that Mojave/ San Joaquin Valley...[145]

Within that mythosexual dream world were feelings spawned by his stepfather Edwin’s death. As Duncan wrote in “Poems from the Margins of Thom Gunn’s Moly” from Ground Work I:

The year my father died died into me and dyed
anew the green of green, the gold gold shone from,
the blue that colors seas and skies to speak
of sadness innocence most knew, and into Man
a mystery to take the place of fatherhood he grew
in me, a ghostly bridegroom fathering his bride in me...

...It was a fiery ghost,
a burning substitution darkening all the sexual ways,
striving in those urgencies to speak, to speak,
to heal unutterable injuries...[146]

Inhabiting the myth of Psyche of Greek myth, he was intrigued by the underbelly of Bakersfield, along the banks of the Kern and to the edges of public parks where he could meet other young men in search of intimacy. Despite its conservative surfaces, Bakersfield also possessed its oil-town toughness, with its share of violence, gambling halls and prostitution. In that realm, Duncan came into another myth, that of the rape of Persephone.
     There were two violent episodes Duncan associated with his transition out of adolescence — one, a car accident, the other, an incident he described variously as a beating or a rape at the hands of a deranged teenager.[ 147] The car accident seemed to fall into the category of unfortunate but not entirely unexpected circumstances — that Duncan as a novice driver had swerved off a back road in Bakersfield during a late night thrill ride with friends. The story of his rape was harder to illuminate — official records of the event seem do not exist. As Duncan described it in an interview in Gay Sunshine magazine during the late 1970s, at the age of sixteen he encountered another young man in the neighborhood park and the two engaged in intercourse. The other boy subsequently flew into a rage and assaulted Duncan, beating him with his fists and opening a large gash on his chin. Sliding out of his attacker’s grip, Duncan ran home and collapsed on the doorstep of his house. When he woke up on a hospital stretcher, his mother and police officers hovered over him asking him for a description of the other boy, a suspected murderer.[148] As was typical of Duncan’s later renderings of significant events in his life, the facts became blurred and stretched out of his fascination with storytelling. He came to describe the rapist as a mythological creature: “His eyes looked like moonstars look — beautiful and exciting! And all the time I’m trying to look beautiful and exciting, trying to look like him, because I feel my face change. I’m entranced but so is he....So I answer entrancement with being entranced.”[149]
     The tone of the retelling masked whatever deeper psychological trauma Duncan may have felt regarding the event, though his ambivalent feelings about his sexuality were continually present in his later writing. Ten years later, in one of his first major works, The Venice Poem, he wrote “cock sucking breeds self-humiliation.”[150]


Chapter Eighteen: Heat

O wind, rend open the heat,
cut apart the heat,
rend it to tatters.

Fruit cannot drop
through this thick air —
fruit cannot fall into heat
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears
and rounds the grapes.

Cut the heat —
plough through it,
turning it on either side
of your path.

                              — H.D.

In 1933, Kern County Union High School teacher Edna Keough made a pilgrimage back to Taos, New Mexico, where she had met the novelist and poet D.H. Lawrence in the early 1920s. An amateur poet in her own right, her work had been published in magazines of the provincial variety — The San Franciscan, The Lyric West and The Carmel Pine Cone Cymbal — and her academic specialty was an unusual one for a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley during the early 1930s — twentieth century Modernist literature. When Robert Duncan entered her classroom at the age of sixteen, he found the impetus for his “conversion to poetry.” Of Keough and her classes, he wrote:

I was to find anew the world of Romance that I had known in earliest childhood in fairy tale and daydream and in the romantic fictions of the household in which I grew up. Now it seems my soul first set out on its journey in my falling in love with my teacher, with some intimation of spirit in her, that reappeared later disguised in the foolish even vain presentation of a taste for the modern.[151]

The thirty-five year old Keough recognized and reciprocated Duncan’s affections, engaging him in after-school conversations about literature, reading his poems, and presenting him with a number of books, including D.H. Lawrence’s The Man Who Died. It was with Keough’s encouragement that Duncan made his way more solidly toward the idea of a career in poetry and in the months following his stepfather’s death; it was Edna Keough whose ideas and emotional overtures inhabited his mind. Duncan joked that Keough was also a ready audience for his early narcissistic performances of poetry —

I fell in love with her because every single day really was molded around the possibility of getting to the classroom and having that hour, and then I very rapidly discovered that I could also go to her house and pour out bad poetry at her by the hour and she would look enthralled.[152]

When they discussed his plans to enter the University of California at Berkeley as a student in English Literature, Keough expressed a skepticism about his fate in academia, a piece of news which was met with consternation on the part of Minnehaha who had already been forced to reconcile herself with the fact that her stepson had little interest in a career in an acceptable field such as architecture. Duncan recalled his stepmother’s warning that came with hints of Oedipal jealousy — that the spinster English teacher with the dark searching eyes belonged to a category of “thwarted women”. When Duncan entered college the following year, Minnehaha further berated him: “Poets write about things like you were having with your teacher and this would be disgraceful.”[153]
     But for Duncan, that “thing” he had with his teacher seemed like a divine intervention. He recognized her classroom as “the place of the numen,” a monumental discovery for a young man who had been trying to make sense of his parents’ theosophical ideas about the divine on his own terms and within his own intellectual system. As he wrote in “The Truth and Life of Myth,” “The word numen I take from Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy. The numinous is felt as the presence — it is the presence — of an overwhelming reality as an entity, its genius.”[154] Put simply, for Duncan, the poem became the place of the Logos — it was, in Christian terms, the word made flesh, an independent reality and an incarnation of divinity in the realm of human life.[155]
      A key to that discovery came through the example of the poet Hilda Doolittle whose poems Edna Keough read to her students, and through whom Duncan found himself inhabiting what he described as “the ground of the Eros,” reveling now in the inspiration of two mother-surrogates. This point he made clear in describing his early conception of The H.D. Book as a tribute to the women in his life.[156] Within that text he further elucidated the importance of his high school discovery of H.D.’s early Imagist poem “Heat”:

The path of H.D.’s work, between that poem and the many levels of consciousness mastered in the War Trilogy, and the path of my own recognitions in poetry and life, between that classroom where I had resolved to devote my life to poetry and the first formative crises when I began to see what that poetry was to be, had their coordinations.
     A classroom had been a meeting room. I had come at the appointed hour with a lover’s joy in her company who had given me the most gracious of gifts: these things she loved she gave me to love. Books were the bodies of thought and feeling that could not be otherwise shared. There was more: certain writers so revealed what human being had been that each of us had a share in that being. Love and Poetry were so mixed in the alembic that they coinhered in a new experience.[157]

From that classroom at Kern County Union High School, Duncan was propelled into his life’s work and Keough found the satisfaction of nurturing a student she had high expectations for. As she told Duncan years later, “You don’t understand that in thirty years of teaching, you were the only poet I had.”[158] His childhood had been neatly bookmarked between the two major wars of the twentieth century, and his early career was to be built around a study of the writers who inhabited the war-torn space of Europe — the Surrealists, the Imagists, the expatriots Gertrude Stein, H.D., Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. There were two dominant characteristics of Duncan’s personality that helped to facilitate his early successes — when he left Bakersfield for the University of California at Berkeley during the fall of 1936, he had a ferocious intellectual appetite, and he possessed a ferocious narcissism. He left Bakersfield as a talkative enthusiastic teenager with a goal to be a writer, and while he had never been initiated into his parents’ religion, he was en route to maturing into a poet who circled back to the myths, the books, and the secrets of his family.



Notes to Chapter Twelve

100. Robert Duncan, “Poems from the Margins of Thom Gunn’s Moly: Preface to the Suite,” GWI, (63).

101. Robert Peters and Paul Trachtenberg, “A Conversation with Robert Duncan”, 1976. Chicago Review: Fall 1997, Volume 43, Number 4. Robert Duncan’s life-long fastidious record-keeping seemed to be more an exercise in numerology than the work of an accountant’s mind. Despite his obsession with inventories (purchases of books, razors, and toothpaste), little distressed him more than balancing his bankbook and filing his taxes. “Household” matters came into focus with Minnehaha’s death in 1961 when one of Duncan’s first priorities was to claim the rights to his stepmother’s toaster.

102. Joseph Cardarelli, Interview with Robert Duncan, April 1985.

103. Barbara Jones, Personal Interview, 16 Jan. 1998.

104. Robert Duncan, The H.D. Book, [www.factoryschool.org/content/pubs/rhood/index.html], (86).

105. Barbara Jones, Personal Interview, 16 Jan. 1998. If Robert Duncan remembered this, he never wrote about it.

106. Robert Duncan, Notebook 3, UCB.

107. Robert Duncan, The H.D. Book, [www.factoryschool.org/content/pubs/rhood/index.html], (87).

108. Now in storage at SUNYAB.

109. Robert Duncan, “Spring,” unpublished manuscript, SUNYAB. The obvious possibility exists that these poems were provided by a teacher and transcribed by the students in the classroom.

110. Robert Duncan, The H.D. Book, [www.factoryschool.org/content/pubs/rhood/index.html], (88).

111. Barbara Jones, Personal Interview, 16 Jan. 1998. In some ways the relationship between Duncan and his younger sister was later echoed in Duncan’s relationship with his partner Jess — with both individuals, Duncan had found a less domineering companion to participate in events of the imagination.

112. Ibid. Barbara Jones remembered her brother creating this illusion for her on more than one occasion during their childhood. Her astonishment was of a similar intensity to that of New College students who ascribed various supernatural phenomena to Duncan’s presence, including electrical disturbances.


Notes to Chapter Thirteen

113. Unpublished notes of Minnehaha Symmes, SUNYAB.

114. Barbara Jones, Personal Interview, 16 Jan. 1998.

115. See YRD for an in-depth exploration of Duncan’s junior high school career and early journalistic writing style.


Notes to Chapter Fourteen

116. Robert Duncan, “Santa Cruz Propositions,” GWI, (38), Duncan’s protégé Stan Brakhage enjoyed quoting Charles Olson’s “Nature will kill you if she gets a chance.”

117. Robert Duncan, The HD. Book, [www.factoryschool.org/content/pubs/rhood/index.html], (86).

118. Robert Duncan, “A Glimpse,” GWI, (47).

119. Robert Duncan, “A Life in Poetry,” The Vancouver Poetry Conference, 5 Aug. 1963.

120. Ibid.

121. A compelling example of Duncan’s use of sexual metaphor come in “The Venice Poem”[1947] where the opening lines “the lions of Venice crouch” refer to the male genitalia. In the later poems “Circulations of the Song”,(GWI) and “An Alternate Life”, (GWII) Duncan veils his interests in two men — Norman Austin and Christopher Edwards — when necessary, Duncan concealed his infidelities (or potential infidelities) from Jess by obscuring the identity of the beloved, merging it with an unnamed divine incarnation of Eros.

122. Robert Duncan, “A Life in Poetry,” The Vancouver Poetry Conference, 5 Aug. 1963.

123. Robert Duncan, “His Body,” unpublished manuscript, SUNYAB.

124. Lili Fabilli, Personal Interview, 1 Oct. 1998.

125. Robert W. Sheldon to the author, 15 Apr.1998.

126. Robert Duncan, Notebook 46, 2 April 1978, SUNYAB.

127. Robert Duncan, Notebook 65, 21 Sept. 1982, SUNYAB. Duncan wrote these notes recalling his father’s interest in Hebrew during a time when he himself was a student in David Meltzer’s classes on the Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism at the New College of California.

128. “right and loyal”.

129. Joseph Cardarelli, Interview with Robert Duncan, April 1985.

130. Robert Duncan, “Circulations of the Song,” GWI, (174).

131. Joseph Cardarelli, Interview with Robert Duncan, April 1985.

132. Barbara Jones, Personal Interview, 16 Jan. 1998.

133. Robert Duncan, Notebook 2, UCB.


Notes to Chapter Fifteen

134. Kern County Union High School was later renamed Bakersfield High School. Another famous alumni was Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren who graduated in 1908 and like Duncan, matriculated to the University of California at Berkeley.

135. Barbara Jones, Personal Interview, 16 Jan. 1998.

136. Robert Duncan, unpublished manuscript, SUNYAB.

137. Ibid.

138. Robert Peters and Paul Trachtenberg, “A Conversation with Robert Duncan, 1976,” Chicago Review: Fall 1997, Volume 43, Number 4.

139. Robert Duncan, unpublished manuscript, SUNYAB.


Notes to Chapter Sixteen

140. Robert Duncan, Notebook 4, (15), UCB.

141. Barbara Jones, Personal Interview, 16 Jan. 1998.

142. Robert Duncan, Notebook 4, (22) UCB.

143. Robert Duncan, unpublished manuscript, SUNYAB.

144. “Masonic Services Held for Symmes,” The Bakersfield Californian, 13 Sept. 1935.


Notes to Chapter Seventeen

145. Robert Duncan, Notebook 52, 19 Jan.1976, SUNYAB.

146. Robert Duncan, “Poems from the Margin of Thom Gunn’s Moly”, GWI, (64).

147. Barbara Jones has no memory of either of these events that would have taken place while she was in the household.

148. Briefly described in YRD, (47), cf. Steve Abbott and Aaron Shurin. “Interview: Robert Duncan”. Gay Sunshine, Summer/ Fall 1979, No. 41-42.

149. Steve Abbott and Aaron Shurin. “Interview: Robert Duncan”, Gay Sunshine. Summer/ Fall 1979, No. 41-42.

150. Robert Duncan. “The Venice Poem,” The First Decade, (FD), London: Fulcrum Press, 1968, (90).


Notes to Chapter Eighteen

151. Robert Duncan, The H.D. Book. [www.factoryschool.org/content/pubs/rhood/index.html], (7).

152. Robert Duncan, “A Life in Poetry,” The Vancouver Poetry Conference, 5 Aug. 1963.

153. Ibid.

154. Robert Duncan, “The Truth and Life of Myth,” FC, (33).

155. The potentialities of a logos-based poetics were explored by Duncan more intensely during the mid-1940s when he met the poets Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser.

156. Jess Collins, Personal Interview, June 1989.

157. Robert Duncan, The H.D. Book, [www.factoryschool.org/content/pubs/rhood/index.html], (25).

158. Robert Duncan, “A Life in Poetry,” The Vancouver Poetry Conference, 5 Aug. 1963. Duncan’s friendship with Keough was one of his longest and most consistently maintained — during the early 1980s after Keough retired to San Francisco she met with Duncan and Jess for lunch on a monthly basis.



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