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Jonathan Williams Feature

Ronald Johnson

A Microscopic/Telescopic Collage of The Empire Finals at Verona


Adjust the focus to fifteen years or so ago, and the glass frames, at a flick, an unshaven Fielding Dawson saying “Jay Zoos, man! ” — with a beer can fast in his left hand, a scrap of The Times held out for all to see in the other. The long table at which he sits is piled with several dozen empties beyond which a window extends square out over the roofs of Staten Island in the air, in and out through several dozen gulls, for an instant clear to the closed window of Louis Zukofsky’s apartment, and Marianne Moore astroll—just—behind a mist that is Brooklyn.


When you look into your head what you see is collage with what is remembered. (Past as paste.) Which was/is:


Fee had had I remember the drawings completed. But the collages needed something more in the order of a jam session with The Empire Finals text. At the time he lived mostly third booth from the back, right side, The Cedar Bar: Franz Kline’s booth. After several months drinking to the occasion, J.W. and I finally decided to steal him intact, one night, direct to the Ferry. Pick up a couple cases of Bud and some glue. Then keep him at it in the quiet—I can’t imagine now why—of Staten Island.


Back at the table. Jonathan’s and my flat was rented from an eminent (though necessarily nameless) literary critic who drank a gallon of Virginia Dare sherry a day and towards afternoon fancied he was the Pope. We lived on the third floor and even before Fee had his eyes open from the night before The Critic would ascend the stair announcing “Cock! Tail hour… ” He tended to trip on his long black cape as he carried a pontifical staff in one bony hand and a glass of sherry in the other. The climax of this daily process would be a scene in which he would, “my deah,” as he proclaimed in a voice he supposed approximate to late Henry James, “spit! on the Church.” It was all sadly more apoplectic, and the discharge was liable to spray only completed ink drawings.


Add to the side of the collage: The Critic lived with an ageing “young man of delicate Athenian sensibillllity” — T.C.’s Firbankian euphemism for gay. (Once in Washington D.C. where J.W. and I both met him, he encouraged one of his students—a peroxide blond youth from Texas with an alarmingly peppermint pink convertible cadillac—to skip through Jonathan’s rooms with nothing but crepe paper streamers up his ass.) There were somewhere in the number of 23 cats downstairs and the kitchen as well as dining room were uninhabitable, at the moment, because of the smell. I was later to sock him, giggle, Henry James, and glass of Virginia Dare, all, clear through a French Door into an assortment of yowling fur. Jonathan and I were exiled from The Presence thereafter, without a place to stay and about $75.00 between us. It snowed a hell of a lot that winter, and the painters’ lofts were cold.


Zero into the first collage of the actual, the book, the last of the American Empire as Catullus might have viewed it. There we are. “Just the news,” as Jonathan was later to state. Jazz, The Bird, The Bomb, Black Mountain blasted, sports (the memory of Fee in his barefoot Rimbaud days playing softball like Franz before a canvas), love, hate, heroes, language. After Black Mountain how do you put it together with where we were? “We are wary? Where are we?”


The poems had been based on the riffs and strokes of jazz and Abstract Expressionism. The tune to play sound around is often a quotation—as if Miles improvising Ives. The first, the Catullus poems, were written with Louis Zukofsky: Louis was to translate the sound, and Jonathan was to do em jazz. After, we bat from Walt Whitman to Stan Musial. The records stacked (Jonathan to this day keeps the record player hot, I’m sure, all day) were:


Miles (muted on standards, open on

then Couperin le Grand and
Stravinsky: Symphony in C


The light from that window falls, exact through the beer cans, on poems written before New York—between and beyond Washington D.C., and Highlands, N.C. There is there a love letter from Michael McClure, and one to Robert Duncan (it is itself a collage of “utterly unquiet” distillations that stirs still whatever air beneath this magnification). There are as well three or four written to me in letters at the time J.W. and I were first separated: “the renewal of mystery, out of which one feeds and lives” I read now as it is pulled from the file. March 1958. One of these is The Grounds written at the time Edward Dahlberg had been advising J.W. to put “loam, ordinary dirt, foliage, moss, and even the dead carcasses of birds” into a book.


Collage. Autopsy was lifted whole from newspapers of Whitman’s time, and The Sounds suspends Poe in the crystal air of Ono Komachi. Others invent themselves out of their sound: “the ear fears for its sound-barriers” while the last bombs fall “and burst the livers of great whales.” “O!” the book ends. Williams and Dawson putting together the last ball game of the empire—batting balls against the void.


The Critic was, as always everyone else, magnetized to Fee’s helter-skelter energy, and the black cape swirls an inch closer, as we see it telescoped, toward the eye of the storm of newsprint. I would, I remember, return from a day studying at Columbia to find havoc in progress and the ageing young man on the trapeze of delicate Athenian sensibility sent out for another jug of sherry.


The only words I pick up from this distance—San Francisco, 1973—are those of Fielding staring down on the completed collage of Kevin McCarthy arching his eyebrow at a bar in front of Ed Begley and some forgotten starlet, announcing in miraculous anguish: “My God it looks like me.”

Ronald Johnson and Williams were partners for ten years. Ronald Johnson (1935‒1998) was the author of the long poem ARK, as well as several shorter collections, including The Book of the Green Man, The Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses, RADI OS, and The Shrubberies. For over a decade, beginning in the late 1950s, he was Jonathan Williams’ companion, during which time they hiked together the length of the Appalachian Trail, traveled extensively around the British Isles, and made a Grand Tour of Europe. Born in Kansas, educated at Columbia University, enlisted in the U.S. Army, Johnson lived for over twenty-five years in San Francisco, before returning to Kansas, to Topeka, where he lived with his father for the final four years of his life.

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