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If I had not been. If I had not been always in transition, moving from New York City winters to Virginia summers, always the new girl, the one no one knows, the one with the Southern accent, the one with the Yankee accent, the rich or the not-rich one, the one from the house with all those books, from East 86th Street on the Upper East Side, or the commuter suburbs of Chappaqua, Pleasantville, and Mt. Kisco, or the Hudson River town of Ossining where the men, mostly Italians or fled-from-the-farms old Anglos, didn’t take the train but worked at the penitentiary or in factories that lined the riverfront… .
If I had not been the faculty brat, in and out of university classes and campus buildings all over Chapel Hill from the time I was fourteen. If I had not had such comfort with poverty, which gave me a feeling of calm and normalcy. All country farmhouses had splintery floors, smelled of kerosene heaters, needed paint and roof repairs. Some had outhouses, with unpainted silver-smooth glory holes. Some had tin lined kitchen sinks with a pump at the side.
If I had not been any of those things I would still have been just as desperate to leave home the summer I was eighteen. And I would have found a bohemia somewhere, a gang of people at odds, not like me but against other things, anywhere, anyone. All us runaway kids know this. I would have met other people somewhere else, but would they have been as permanent in my life as the Black Mountain people I was to meet? I was passing through my days, without deep attachment. I felt everything could be exchanged. Everything almost was.
I almost didn’t spend the three summer months when I was eighteen at Black Mountain College. My time there was bracketed by a legal rule called in loco parentis. It accidentally steered me there, and just as powerfully, but with deliberate intention on my father’s part, was invoked to keep me from returning after that summer.
I meant to spend the summer of 1955 in Cherokee, in the Maggie Valley of North Carolina, in the mountains way west from Black Mountain. I had been hired as a dancer for “Unto These Hills” — a drama about the Cherokee expulsion and the survival of a remnant band. This shameful story of U.S. colonialism had been tarted up as a public entertainment by a socialist playwright from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; it was presented over the summer months in an outdoor theater near the reservation, to the great improvement of the local economy. Still is, it seems.
I don’t know about today, but in 1955 no Cherokees performed in it. The cast was made up of white drama students from Chapel Hill — by Playmakers, and I was one — and by New York actors who competed for a summer of full employment, with communal benefits. The company became “Indians” with the use of full body makeup for the first act, transformed themselves into white settlers for a middle act, and daubed the body paint on again for the tearful finale. My sister Charlotte had preceded me in this job two years earlier, and my parents, brother, and I had visited her there, so I knew just what to expect, down to the detergent wash-down twice a night to accomplish the racial change-overs. The Hills compound, on the grounds of a Cherokee boarding school, was provided with dining hall, dormitories, classrooms, and off-time theater work, squeezed out of the six-shows-a-week, dark on Sunday drill.
I had been hired. I had the job. I was in the drama department office to sign my contract when someone noticed my birth date. I’d been around the Playmakers for years, and people had forgotten I wasn’t a college student. Or so they said.
Sudden awkward silence.
There had been a recent “problem.” A father was suing the department for failing to protect his twenty-year-old daughter from a romance with an older actor. In loco parentis universities were to be, for white girls under the age of twenty-one in the 1950s South. The assistant director lied nervously. “Gee, Martha, we thought you were a lot older. We’re really sorry.” Which might have been true. Not his difficulty. Mine. It was March. My summer escape route was obliterated.
Was this before or after I bought a copy of the Black Mountain Review at the Bullshead Bookshop in the basement of the university library? It was the issue with a portfolio of Franz Kline’s black and white paintings, and a two-page essay by Robert Creeley in a language and tone I had never encountered in my life. What was this art? This pared down but intensely exploding abstraction? I knew abstract art as controlled and cerebral, hard edged and clean. And what was this crazily direct/indirect way to write about it? This terse pared down hip-talk? What was this magazine typeset and published in Palma de Mallorca? I looked it up to find out where it was. Balearic Islands. Spain. I still didn’t know where it was. Spain meant Franco to me. A curtain had closed over the whole country after the loss of the Spanish Civil War.
But Black Mountain College was not in Spain. It was right here: Black Mountain, North Carolina. I looked that up too and I knew it well, but not as a place where a Robert Creeley wrote or a Franz Kline did paintings like these.
The summer Charlotte was dancing at Cherokee, my parents had taken me and my brother for vacation in the western part of the state. We were to stop and see her (inspection?) but first we drove all the way to Fontana Dam, at the Tennessee border. It was the largest dam and lake in the TVA system, which was then an icon of New Deal progress. My father was excited about this visit, where multidisciplinary regional planning had created flood control, hydroelectric power, and a place of affordable public recreation. That was the description.
The reality was hideous. The lake water levels had to be manipulated to serve the needs of a giant electric plant — resulting in a wide scar of rank red mud ringing the steep sides of Fontana Lake. There were plank walkways and floating docks to accommodate swimming and fishing, but swimming was spooky to say the least: once in the water, the bottom was hundreds of feet below. We stayed in the prefab village that had been erected for project workers and then revamped, minimally, as vacation cottages. We had planned to stay a week but left after one day. We roamed after that, stopping in creepy “tourist homes,” and mildewed motels. There were no predictably clean motel chains in those days. The one in the town of Cherokee had a huge fake Plains Indian-style teepee out in front, and the road through the reservation was chockablock with stands selling Indian souvenirs made in Japan and Taiwan. All styles and habits remote from the real Cherokee, who were agriculturists, weavers, and readers.
After our visit with Charlotte we had headed east, by-passing Asheville, and gone up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, down at Spruce Pine, and over to a state campground called Carolina Hemlocks — all of us agog at the scary mountains, the mild mountains, the cool, crazy changes.
From the campground we drove through the Toe River valley on Route 80 right past Rhonda Westall’s farm at Celo, where later my parents would spend every summer, and our daughters in the 1970s had idyllic vacations. From Celo it’s less than fifteen miles right over the Blacks to Lake Eden and the Black Mountain campus on the eastern side.
Everything in that Appalachian hemlock forest territory was the familiar sad beautiful bad roads and rickety bridges over rivers full of water-rounded boulders, was smoky blue mountains, was over-farmed flatlands, dotted with small churches and cabins with porches and many kids, kids with sores on their heads and calloused feet. Nothing therein had ever suggested the world I was discovering in books and films: Soutine, Morandi, Georgia O’Keefe — Anais Nin, Bertolt Brecht, Raymond Radiguet. Nothing in the Black Mountain Review recalled them either, except that it did, and it danced on my senses, and drove me batty to get at it, to figure it out.
So after the collapse of my Playmakers job I wrote to the school for a catalog. I asked about summer school, scholarships, and work/study programs.
Arrived: no real catalog. A mimeographed description of a summer program. Two brochures for summer institutes from several years earlier. A printed application form. I filled it out. A formal typed letter arrived for me from Constance Wilcock, Registrar. Much later, I found out this was Connie Olson, using her maiden name. (“When the fort is under attack, and there are only three people left, they run around a lot,” said Ralph Maud of the Charles Olson Society.)
The UNC library yielded a little more: Several catalogs from the 1940s. Socialist kids building the campus. It radiated a kind of Putney School, Quaker wholesomeness. It was all about weaving, pottery, theater. It was only 300 miles to the west. I could get there on a bus!
I was supposed to work in the summer, not ask my parents for money for a school. I had worked since age twelve, first at babysitting, then clerking or typing things, saving up the money I wanted for books, records, art supplies. That summer I had about $70 banked. The roundtrip bus ticket would eat $20 of it.
I asked my parents if they’d ever heard of Black Mountain College.“Ar-rumph,” Lambert said. “Eric Bentley went there.” Radical theater was his image.
“Black Mountain girls do post-graduate work at the abortionist,” said Isabella. Sexual liberties was her image. Her prissy house-mother air was another of her change-ups, for she was the one who had taken thirteen-year-old me to foreign movies, to la Ronde, Devil in the Flesh, Les Enfants du Paradise.
More correspondence with Black Mountain followed. Was there a work/study program or could I get a part-time job in the town? More no’s; too far, not feasible. Finally I got a postcard, a BMC letterhead postcard, with the by-now familiar black circle logo, on which was typed: “Come with what money you have in hand and what you are used to for cooking. — Charles Olson, Rector.”
Too bad I kept none of those papers. The postcard was the best. I folded it up in tight little squares and tossed it. What I was used to for cooking was my mother. I wrapped up an old hotplate, two saucepans, some picnic cutlery, some clothes and stuffed my duffle bag.
That exact summer:
Gerry van der Weile
Grey Stone (really his name)
Mona (X) later Burns
Bill (X) — he came from an arts school in California
Herb (X) — a theater student from Pennsylvania
Joe Dunn — with wife Caroline
John Chamberlain — with wife Elaine
Resident but of uncertain status
Ed Dorn — with wife Helene
Wess Huss — with wife Beatrice: theatre
Stefan Wolpe: music, composition
Hilda Morley Wolpe: French, classics
Tony Landreau — with wife Anita: weaving, Albers color
Joe Fiore — with wife Mary: painting, life drawing
Charles Olson — with wife Connie: history, mythology, culture studies, reading
Robert Creeley: writing — but I recall that he came late that summer and didn’t hold classes until the fall, by which time I was back in Chapel Hill.
Which totals 31 souls, without counting a small tribe of children: The Huss daughter was pale, red-haired, freckled, and whiney. Katie Olson at three had a fatally predictive cry as her ultimatum: “My big papa says!” “My big papa will get you!” The older Dorn children, Fred and Shawnee, were Helene’s children, I believe; and Ed and Helene’s child together was baby Paul — but I may have this wrong. All of the Dorn kids were blue-eyed and tow-headed. And except for cherub Paul, who was eighteen months old, all the kids were wily, independent, and in command of an impressive vocabulary of swear words. Especially Fred, age six. I had read the word “fuck” in books but had never heard it said. The children playing outside my window could string together rhythmic sentences, employing “fuck” in all kinds of combinations.
Made sporadic appearances that summer
Fielding Dawson (just released from the Army)
Paul and Nancy Metcalf
Were talked about to the point of seeming present
Robert Duncan (He did come that fall)
Two infants were born that summer. John Landreau to Tony and Anita, Tom Fiore to Joe and Mary. Anita cracked up that summer postpartum, her schizophrenia finally too rampant to be explained away by Reichian theories or cooled out by sitting in her Orgone Box. John Chamberlain’s son Angus arrived somewhat later that year, perhaps early the next winter? I’m pretty sure that Elaine was pregnant by the end of August.
There were plenty of reasons for the anger in the sign posted above the school’s only and terminally busted washing machine: FUCKT. I washed my sheets and clothing by soaking them in a bathtub overnight and then stamping on them barefoot for twenty minutes or so. The rinsing and wringing took a bit of time and often the water was cold. All I had was me — no five-year-old, no infant, no household, and I was content to be a bit grubby. I thought of that the other day, watching Baghdad on TV. Only men and boys out on the street. No women. All of them wearing such clean clothes. Their white shirts were white; some lacked socks but no one was raggedy. Women at home carry Baghdad, with its fitful electricity, with the dust of destruction. They do it with washboards, kettles, and sad irons. They boil starch and tote jerry cans of kerosene.
Thirty-one souls present that summer. What an odd list I’ve set out for you to read, since the names might mean nothing to you. Except for the three, or the five, or the twelve that do — to some of you. Depends on why you’re reading this, doesn’t it?
I could tell you some thing, or many things, about every single name, including the people whose surnames won’t surface for me, and how or when or if they have come in and out of my life since that time.
Three Months, Part Two
Black Mountain College, 1955: a gut-busted ruin. About to recover? About to disperse? About to transform? The squalor didn’t shock me. I was used to southern intellectuals hunkered down in bottomed out chairs, living the country life with walls of dusty books and a pump in the kitchen. I liked the sweet quietude of a well-regulated outhouse where you tossed a small scoop of white lime and grey wood ash into the hole after use. Black Mountain College had flush toilets. But almost everything was battered.
“They’ve left,” said the buildings and grounds. And yet not.
“What do you mean?” “Do you mean it?” These two demands circled like twin lenses. Everyone was free to hold up everything said or done to them. Anything and anyone could be — was — fiercely scolded if the focus were sloppy or careless.
They hadn’t gone. They were here, talking fiercely. There was no shared unspoken agreement to spare the feelings of the less competent. They meant you to prepare yourself to mean something and then to challenge or defend it. They meant you to think of art or poetry or even politics as more important than the indexes of your personal importance. They believed the outside world was real and could be affected by things you did, things you thought. As for the obvious poverty, it didn’t automatically mean powerlessness. We were in a modern world where a moneyed class no longer had sole purchase on intellectual life. Independence could often mean poverty, especially for those who broke with the cannons of received opinion. Examples were everywhere: the hand-to-mouth struggles of Merce Cunningham and his troupe of dancers, the poverty of Willem deKooning, Philip Guston, and earlier still, of James Joyce or D.H. Lawrence. But poverty did not mean meaninglessness. It did not give a person a pass from obligations.
I walked through neck-high weeds to the library. Dissent. Origin. Black Sun. Carl Jung. Jane Harrison. Books from Black Mountain’s own print shop: The Double-Backed Beast, The Dutiful Son. Pages in beautifully made books, shining in the sunlight.
True enough, the pot shop and the print shop were closed and padlocked, and the librarian was gone too, for at least a year. As booklovers everywhere believe books belong to the person who loves them, so books had clung to their dearly beloveds, and the shelves, in their solitude, developed large and still larger gaps. Greedy pickers. I knew who some of them were.
The library door was warped and leaking, but it was not padlocked. Except for Rockwell Kent, I had never seen or read these books or magazines. Child of a bookman, from a household of thousands of volumes. I had roamed the stacks of Chapel Hill’s university library, and discovered only far away radicals, French anarchists, Italian surrealists, Russian nihilists. What was this dissident American world that shadowed — that might be able to overwhelm — the liberal world my father Lambert claimed?
The library building was a one-story white clapboard structure. I’m not sure if it was one of the military surplus prefabs, which were also low, one-story, utilitarian clapboard. Black Mountain had four or five of them as classrooms, housing, or art studios. The campus in Chapel Hill had scores, along with corrugated tin Quonset huts and amazingly elegant buildings put up in wartime for the Navy’s officer candidate school. We were just ten years from World War II. In Chapel Hill, Victory Village was a warren of prefab shacks for the families of married students on the G.I. Bill. Black Mountain had eight young men, for whom the G.I. Bill paid the tuition.
The summer I was there, Dan Rice and George Fick lived and painted in one of the prefabs down on the lower campus but the rest of the lower campus was closed, to save funds, I was told. The lower campus had those ample buildings that figure in so many of the photographs, the Adirondack-style lodges with porches, beamed ceilings, fieldstone fireplaces. I peered through the glass doors. We were asked to please stay out.
My Black Mountain started further up the hill, just past the swampy upper edge of Lake Eden. There was a turnaround by the Studies Building, and a concrete pit, empty, for storing coal. There were large common rooms on the ground floor of Studies, three or four classrooms, and a few faculty apartments at the back end. The balance of the building was taken up by individual student studies, two floors-full of minimal cells, each with a door, a window, and a plank desk.
“People have fucked in every one of them,” Gerry van der Weill said admiringly.
I picked out one that had been completely upholstered in wholesale egg crate dividers. The bumpy grey grids had been painted rose red on one wall and left as is elsewhere. It was otherwise clean and I liked the look. Some studies were filled with left-behind possessions, rotting mattresses, worn out boots. Those in use were piled with books, reams of typing paper, overflowing ashtrays. There was nothing in mine to supplement the overhead light bulb, so I took a gooseneck lamp from the empty room next door.
On the hill above the Studies Building were the scattered cottages where we all lived. They were winterized summer vacation houses of the same vintage as the big buildings on the lower campus, punctuated, here and there with modern constructions. Student-built experiments in simplicity. Plywood, cinderblock, corrugated metal, transparent plastic, unfinished plasterboard. The builders were gone and the materials they used were not new anymore. The buildings were damp and musty. Minimalism doesn’t do dirty very well. A dirty John Sloan isn’t the same order of offense as a Mondrian that needs a good cleaning.
Just before classes were to begin there was a community party in a faculty apartment in the Studies Building. The room crackled, packed with people. There was homebrew in a vat. It was Tony Landreau’s place, someone told me, and that was Tony doing the dirty shag. A skinny man with half-closed eyes and loose blond hair swaying in the middle of the room. His dance was a half squat, butt wiggle and grind, punctuated by wild kicking, and it took a lot of space. He had a collection of thirties and forties jazz on hard twelve-inch records, 78’s. As soon as one spun to the end, Tony spun it off the player and across the room like a Frisbee, where most of them crashed and splintered. The whites of his eyes were pink with liquor and exercise.
“You gotta hear this one,” he kept yelling, and couples danced. Charles Olson danced with Connie. He bent over from the waist and she tiptoed so their heads connected, cheek to cheek, while his back extended like a tabletop. I figured his legs were three feet from hers. There was surely nineteen or twenty inches difference in their height, and 120 pounds in weight. Enough for a third person. Did the three of them go to bed?
Joe Dunn, who had been sent to pick me up at the Black Mountain Trailways stop, told me I’d be awestruck at his size, but I’d had an interview with him the day I arrived in which he remained seated, way way down in a sprung easy chair. He apologized for not getting up, because of bursitis, he’d said. So he has a big head, he’s a tall man, I thought. But at that party I got it. The dance was truly impressive.
Tony was stopped by two or three people from toppling an empty baby bassinette, the old wooden kind, a literal basket on tall legs. Then I realized the dark-haired silent woman sitting by a wall was very pregnant and that Tony was to be a father soon.
Tom Field was sick, he said. He hadn’t felt well in a week. He looked shamed. He was shamed. He was having bad dreams. When he was dying of cancer, in East/West House in San Francisco, just a few years ago, he made us promise that we wouldn’t worry. “I’ll be fine,” he said to me and Baz, with that same shamed grin.
Tom showed Tony two blackened puncture holes on the top of his foot, surrounded by an ugly red swelling, and mumbled, “I have these weird marks.”
“Man! You’re snake bit,” Tony hollered. He’d grown up in affluent Washington, D.C. suburbs and knew his snakes. He figured the rattler must have struck something else just shortly before the bite or Tom would have been a great deal sicker.
“But didn’t you notice getting hit?”
We all wanted to know.
Tom half whiney, half winsome wasn’t sure. Maybe at night? said Tom, the village idiot, grinning. His teeth were tiny and ever so slightly pointed. His eyes bashful in a broad, bland white-bread Midwestern face. Ralph Thomas Field. He was of uncertain sex (was he deucey? was he acey?) and he was ungainly, unfocused. A big unattractive body, but with large reserves of unapparent stamina. He was a painter. Ah, but he painted with the violence of an angel and the shrewdness of a politician. There was nothing idiotic, unfocused, or embarrassed about his work. See Vincent Katz’s Black Mountain Arts catalog, where two beautiful Field abstractions are reproduced. He could have received a rattler’s full force and overridden it, ashamed of being in pain. In fact, maybe he did. Ralph Thomas Field, artist.
There were no black people at Black Mountain College that summer, but Miles Davis haunted everyone. I heard him for the first time my first week. Someone had set a record player in a window up the hill — and at night, when the road was so dark you’d blink your eyes to make sure they were still open that spare, long, achingly sad horn split the air. Sections followed one after another, continued and continued. Movement in the face of troubles I couldn’t have described; movement, from moment to moment. Miles was everywhere. I wonder now if that record player was Stefan Wolpe’s?
These notes feel like postcards. Like sentiment in the mail. Greetings from the Pits. See the Jackalope! Worse than my personal sentiment, I know these little pictures startle and sadden Black Mountainites from earlier times. They remember a campus that worked, new buildings being built, fields that were mowed, the pot shop humming all night, musicians rehearsing in upstairs rooms.
In 1984, when George Butterick was still assuming he had 12,000 poems to write, he was advising Carrol Terrell on the Charles Olson volume for the University of Maine’s “Person and Poet” series. George wanted a Black Mountain reminiscence of Olson from me, or from me and Baz for the volume. I couldn’t do it. I begged off that we had been teenagers, Baz and I. I told George I’d attended BMC just three months, three months in a bad summer when Charles was away much of time. This was true. He was off begging for money to keep the school alive, and failing to get it, and trying too to sort out his domestic crisis with Betty Kaiser, who was pregnant with his son, Charles Peter, and with Connie, who was the mother of his daughter Kate. Connie was losing; Charles was losing what had been; the school was losing under Charles’ watch; Kate was to lose her big poppa; and the seersucker suit Charles wore to his meetings with foundation executives and education patrons in New York or Washington had already lost most of its shape. The closest I ever came to a class with him were some long evenings when he held forth in a booth at Ma Peek’s, over pitchers of beer, and my head for beer was weak, so I heard only some of it.
Besides, I was the wrong sex.
Besides, my relation to Charles would have been deeply qualified even if he had been less gender haunted. For different reasons, so were Basil’s. So what would I possibly write about him? I complained to George without really explaining.
“Just allow yourself whatever narrative play necessary,” George wrote me.
And next, “Maybe you and Baz could do Olson in dialogue. Mike Rumaker sent three pages on how he called Olson a whale. It’s your narrative-you I want. Don’t be burdened by the portentousness of it all. You, the great editor of The Drizz.”
(He meant Giants Play Well in the Drizzle — a newsletter poetry zine I was publishing at that time.)
Then it was January 1985, and the book was to go to press in six weeks: “End on your own narrative,” George demanded in an ultimatum letter. “End on Olson and Black Mountain, physically described. Six sentences. Fade Out. There has to be one overwhelming capture of Olson. I am intent on having this… ”
How could George know how complex this was? Baz and I had known George only a year, for me two meetings, for Baz four. Yes, many letters. But from the beginning of our friendship to its wretched end at George’s early death didn’t span two years. How could we tell or he know?
We did try the double interview approach. What I produced was not at all what George had in mind, not at all what Terrell would dream of accepting. George sent it back to me, and crossed out my words at the end where I wrote, “bad medicine.”
“You can’t end like that!” he scribbled.
Slightly shortened, here it is, as written in 1985:
Black Mountain Teens
Basil had arrived at Black Mountain when he was sixteen. He was there off and on again and again until he was twenty-one. That was a whole year after my summer. He was there the fall when the school closed and someone took that terrible photograph of the last class.
Baz and I never met there but when I came up from Chapel Hill in October to visit the guy I’d gone around with that summer, the two of us passed Baz in the hallway of the Studies Building. Leather jacket, sexy scowl, cocky walk, one shoulder up.
“Who’s that!” I asked.
“Just another painter from Detroit. You don’t want to know him.”
All these things frame me, or what I would talk about if I were talking about me. To talk about Charles, we decided to interview each other:
M: Charles is my father’s age. I always connected them. My father loves Eliot and fears Pound, and Olson the opposite, but politically, I call them both jingoists. “For us — and through us -America is coming of age.” Hear that Virgil Thompson music? Olson running toWashington to work for F.D.R.? Sure, I’d never met anyone like him, but he was recognizable to me from the beginning. The continuum stretches from John Jacob Niles to Buckminster Fuller, from the folklore movement to the millenialists. Lambert Davis (my dad) and Charles Olson were peers. No wonder Charles was so itchy-scratchy when they met.
B: He was itchy-scratchy about every dad. He was about mine. He went to work to charm my father the minute he saw that my dad had some understanding of politics and literature.
M: Put you in a funny position, didn’t it. It did me, when my parents arrived at Black Mountain. They were driving cross-country for a university press convention in Seattle. Lambert was president of the association that year. So they stopped by to check up on me. Lambert was the world of academic publishing — and he was looking with real horror at how rundown the school was.
But I believed Charles’ vision of the world. There was a war going on, not just between the generations, which there was, but essentially between the intellectuals willing to be radical — “to the root,” as Charles would stress — and everyone else who it seemed to me more or less did what they were told. It still seems so to me. And at the time, it matched emotionally how I viewed the war I was in for my own existence.
I thought Charles was on my side. Then all of a sudden, there he was, standing on the road, trying to impress my father.
I didn’t get it. I thought Charles would ignore my parents, that he’d take one look and know that my dad didn’t count for what he thought he counted for. Instead, there was Charles, standing in the driveway in front of the Studies Building, talking a mile a minute, and making a fool of himself. He was trying to overpower my parents. Wrong move! Even though Lambert’s neck was getting redder by the minute, he could calmly stand on his mainstream authority. He was the editor from Harcourt Brace, with a dozen years of New York publishing behind him. And Olson cared about that. I felt betrayed.
B: Well, the bottom came right out for me. I was mad at my dad, for his Zionism and his sentimentalism, and at Charles, for giving my father such a welcome. Charles invited him to become the school’s fund-raiser. He asked him to leave Michigan and join the Black Mountain community. I could see the next move already — kicking the Fiore’s out of Minimum House and moving my father and mother in. Now, where the hell would I have to go? To top it off, everyone was so impressed. I was getting patted on the back enviously. Oh, you’ve got such a great dad.
My mother loved Charles. She whispered to me: “The man’s brilliant!”
M: But what did we learn, now that we’ve got that off our chests?
B: (still angry) Not to drive a car the way he did!
M: I thought it was funny. When he got in that little car, the springs were on the ground and you’d see this great pumpkin head through the window and you couldn’t help wondering how the hell was all the rest of him in there. How could he shift? His knees had to be up against his chest.
B: It wasn’t the shifting, it was the talking. God knows why he didn’t get killed.
But I can tell you about what I learned. I don’t know if it was in class or at his house, but Charles asked how does one go about putting something together? How do you look at the materials? How do you get to the thing? I said, subtraction. He said, “No, no, no: division!” This is one of the most important things he ever gave me. It hit me between the eyes.
M: You mean the whole is always there?
B: You can keep dividing and dividing. You can keep going. Yes, the whole is still there. Maybe I would have gotten to that myself eventually, but he put the boot in my head.
One of the worst things I ever did to Charles was in a class on Rimbaud. He had talked his heart out about Rimbaud for three hours. Then he asked, “Is there anything anybody here doesn’t understand?” We didn’t say anything. “Any questions?” And I — and everybody else — shook our heads, no. He looked crushed. I can still see his face.
M: You guys were tired.
B: No. He talked so much you felt you understood everything. But I — we all — knew we really didn’t. Sometime after that, I had a terrible argument with him. It went on for months. I said that when Rimbaud said, “Women nurse men home from hot countries” he was talking about his father. That nearly everything he talked about was about his father and not about himself. I said I’m seventeen too, and I know what he was doing. Olson said no.
M: I think you were right.
B: But I didn’t understand everything. It’s a funny connection because Charles himself continues to be an enigma. He started out with a memory, which I have never quite understood — he had a memory instead of himself. He had Melville’s memory. His father’s memory. Pound’s memory. Even civilization’s memory. I’m not speaking about knowledge. He internalized other people’s memories in such a way that when he spoke in poems, from “Kingfishers” on, or when he spoke in class, you got a sensation of a man going through the thing himself, in person. It was terribly exciting.
M: So why the puzzle?
M: [continuing] Olson was writing the second part of the Maximus poems the summer I knew him. If he wasn’t writing much, that’s what he was intent on doing. I don’t think he ever questioned if there really is a New World. He was trying to see if the New World could be created. He wasn’t interested in going over European assumptions.
B: I’m not so sure. I suspect Charles was more involved than we like to think in going over all those old European spoons and bones.
M: That’s not what he said in the poems. But I guess Europe was closer to him than we think. I mean he was the child of immigrants. He grew up in a household that must have had a European feel — a foreign ambiance among the regular Yankees.
B: He denied it.
M: Did they speak English at home?
B: I don’t know.
M: Were both his parents Swedish?
B: I don’t know. I suppose it’s documented.
M: I take your word that it’s documented but it’s interesting that we don’t know. I mean he was a great storyteller, he talked all the time.
B: He did tell a lot of stories, and you don’t necessarily know if they’re true or not. Charles didn’t actually tell you much. He told me one story nobody else heard. I’ve told it to Dan (Rice) and (Robert) Duncan and Fielding (Dawson) and none of them had ever heard it from him.
Charles said he was living in New York in the same building where I later had my first room — that rooming house on Second Avenue at 6th Street. He was lying on the bed. He said he had been married while he was an actor, and the marriage didn’t last very long.* He told me he had been having an absolutely miserable time.
* George Butterick was adamant that there is no record Charles was ever married when he was an actor. I’m sure George (careful scholar that he was) is correct. Baz is sure Charles referred to a marriage. My thought is that Charles had an intense affair and described it as marriage in the interest of economical storytelling. As Baz said in that interview, it was rare for Charles to tell any story that showed him making a mess of things.
The day before, he had been in Union Square and he was the tallest person there. He had shouted out against the speaker and everyone listening had turned on him. “Why don’t you fuck off, you big bully!” He was just humiliated. Within the same period of time, maybe thirty-six hours or so, he’d also gone to a party and had a terrible fight with Hart Crane. He was lying on his bed, and going through it all in his head, when somebody knocked on the door. He said the door’s open and Marsden Hartley walked in and stood over him. Hartley had a stammer, you know. Hartley took off his hat, very formally, and looked down at Charles — he was another very large man –and he said, “You — you — you don’t know anything!” And then he left. Walked out the door. Charles said, “That’s why I hate New York.”
It was rare for Charles to tell a story that shows him so vulnerable. He liked to project himself as the boy scout, the general…
M: (sourly) He was a leader who didn’t always inform his troops about the true goals of the battle.
B: Yeah, was he trying to outdo F.D.R.? Who was he trying to influence?
B: Well. (Pause.) You get to know some people so well there’s no doubt about what they want. I don’t know what Charles Olson wanted. I hope I’m not being pedantic, but I think that’s one reason why his influence hasn’t been as strong as we all thought it would be.
M: I don’t agree. Charles had oceanic ambitions — to be an influence on the culture. I’d go further. He’d put it that that ambition was the only one worthy of a great poet.
But I think we’re talking about something else. We’re talking about how he took advantage of the students at Black Mountain. We were all cannon fodder. I think of his relationship to me, for example, just in terms of the way he exerted pressure on me to view society a certain way and, as I saw when my father visited, he presented an unfair picture of his own relationship to it.
B: Sometimes what you need is cannon fodder.
M: I don’t think he told the troops what they were really fighting for.
B: I think that’s unfair. We didn’t understand it.
M: Okay. We were kids.
B: One thing Charles did in the classroom that was truly remarkable: he didn’t stop things. Even when he disapproved of the tack someone was taking, he’d let things go, let them run through whatever kind of confusion, sometimes even mayhem that could ensue. Sometimes he wouldn’t answer a question until two classes later. He was never tyrannical in class.
M: There, in the most tyrannical of situations?
B: Basically, Charles was dealing with history, just as he said — more than with poetry, which he didn’t say.
M: I think that may be fair. He wanted to be a singer, but he wasn’t… umm… wasn’t…
B: It didn’t come easily for him, like part of his nature, the way it did for Wieners. He adored John Wieners. To tell you the truth, I envied it and I looked at it with joy, the way the two of them talked to each other. There was a love between them. For whatever reason, Charles didn’t compete with John. Not there, at school. I saw him encourage John. And John wasn’t competitive with Charles, even though he valued his independence and could be a very difficult man. They had a seriously enviable position with each other at that time.
But Charles was always mad at me. He became mad at me early and he stayed mad. I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do. And that was real. I wasn’t. Unfortunately. But between John and Charles there was a quietness. When they talked together in class, I’d feel everything is possible. They spoke in a tone that had absolute well-being in it.
In the end, Charles gave me a nightmare definition: he gave me a place without giving me a name. To this day, people who went to Black Mountain don’t know what to think of me because of it.
M: (Pause.) Perhaps I was lucky after all, being the wrong gender.
B: But you didn’t really need him for anything. You weren’t at Black Mountain for ambition…
M: I was there to get away from my dad. And I was met by teasing. Such a terrible weapon. You’re diminished before you open your mouth! This is my abiding image of him: I was in my room one night, on the second story of one of the cottages. The hill behind was steep, and all of a sudden his head appeared right in the second-story window and he was going “Ho, Ho, Ho!”
I was sitting under a lamp, reading Maximus, the blue covered book that Jonathan published.
“Trying to figure it out? Ho, Ho, Ho!” he went.
What could I say? I was trying to figure it out. Wasn’t I supposed to? And then I thought maybe I wasn’t supposed to. Maybe it was supposed to come all at once if you were a truly able person. I was absolutely flattened. I could hear him still laughing as he walked away.
So I’m suspicious. I think he made your life difficult because he resented your intuition.
B: Not wholly. He admired it and was interested in it, along with being jealous. He wanted intuition badly and he had to fight for it. I remember a huge class uproar about the meaning of wildness and I piped up with “Domesticity is the wildest thing.” He pounded on the table and just roared, “Where do you get these things, boy?”
M: You know what Charles did for me? He gave me a reading list, on a piece of paper. A terrific list. I started off with Moby Dick. That was a good thing. And he laughed at me. That was bad medicine, seriously bad medicine.
Ah, but I was bitter then. It reeks off the page. By contrast, Baz was so much clearer, and far more generous. Basil has dozens of Charles stories. I have only the ones I told in 1985.
Baz remembers Charles lifting the chair Baz was sitting on in the dining hall, and holding him up in the air, a terrifying act of strength. There was also a day when no one showed up for Saturday work detail and Charles stormed into Basil’s room bellowing at him for influencing everyone to shirk. But when he saw Basil’s swollen ankle, Charles picked him up, tenderly this time, called him Robin, put him in his car and drove him to a doctor in Asheville. Afterwards they went to a bar. Baz says it was the Grove Park Inn, the fanciest place in Asheville at that time, and they sat there drinking for the rest of the afternoon.
Most seriously, Charles saved Baz’s life. Baz had wrecked a farmer’s car and destroyed U.S. Government property, a fence I think, in a drunken drive back to the school from a drive-in movie theater somewhere past Oteen. The school had just received the news of Jackson Pollock’s death. The movie, Baz remembers, was Trapeze. The car was packed with students, all of them drunk. But the crash was the end. There was a poor man standing by the road with his busted car, and who would pay him to fix it, and state troopers swarming. Basil’s plan was to let himself go to jail. To plead no contest. He felt terrible about what he’d done.
Charles knew jail could quite literally ruin Basil’s life. He had to argue Baz out of it. It took all night. Then he took school money to hire a lawyer, and arranged for half the student body to be in the Asheville courtroom, in clean shirts. “Your honor, we have college student here, got in a little trouble last Saturday night,” the lawyer said. The fix was in. Charles had transformed a serious adolescent suicide attempt into a funny story.
With all of that, Baz is still aware of what he said in 1985, which Butterick didn’t cross out on my manuscript: Charles gave him a place, without giving him a name — and Charles’ influence in that subtle regard followed Baz for fifty years.
Three Months, Part 3
That happened some time before the three months when I was eighteen, but there was another automobile accident the summer I was there, not a funny story. And I’m stopped again.
This is not the Black Mountain of legend, when everyone present was a famous person, glamorous as the fake spread in Vogue magazine that superimposed Jasper Johns’ face over a photo of Lake Eden. (Johns never attended Black Mountain, and to my knowledge never set foot on the property.) I was there the summer before the very last summer. All golden ages have a lot of dross in them.
I studied theater with Wess Huss; we produced a bare-bones version of Lorca’s Blood Wedding and worked on scenes from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. (This was 1955. I’m not sure where he got the script.) Wess’s idea of theater was a world away from the performance-appearance emphasis of the Carolina Playmakers. And different too from Actor’s Studio psychobabble, which I encountered later in New York, when I studied acting with Lee Strassberg disciples. Wess said theater was artifice, that the audience was an active co-operator, that performance began in the imagination and entered a dancing give and take with the situation at hand at that moment.
Wess would knot himself up watching rehearsals, his ankles crossed, his long Swiss legs crossed, his long arms so folded up that his body formed a five-pointed star; head, two knees, two elbows. And somehow he smoked, hunching over to get at the burning cigarette in his hand.
I studied weaving with Tony Landreau, who gave a solid introduction to Albers’ color theory. We also fooled around trying to dye wool with local plant materials and came up with some squalid grays and lavenders. Like Native Americans before me, I much preferred the bright chemical dyes from Germany; the Weaving Lab still had a large stock of supplies and some extremely fine looms as well.
I was supposed to have a weekly painting critique with Joe Fiore but I was too terrified to meet him one-on-one. When it was time for our session, I went on long walks, and hid in the bushes. It wasn’t him, personally. I was afraid my ideas were childish, or worse, that they were on a forbidden list which I recognized but didn’t understand. Oh, there was a forbidden list. Had I been more equipped, I might have explored and defended myself per the demands of the Black Mountain ethic. Instead, I was simply frightened. I knew I didn’t understand abstraction, although I responded viscerally to paintings by Kline, Rothko, Guston. The source, the thing in itself, eluded me. The things Joe said to students in the life-drawing class where I was the model, confused me even more. But there were many other ideas, new ideas that did not.
By that time in its history Black Mountain was only about ideas. Almost everything else had been abandoned, lost, broken, fallen in. Ideas crackled across the gaps. I had lived most of my life in an academic society but I’d never encountered people who were as passionate about the play of ideas. Not this way.
Here was a place calling itself a school that seemed always to have lived the primacy of ideas. Throughout all the various Black Mountains, and there were five or six or more of them, most students didn’t graduate and didn’t work for graduation credits. During their stay they were involved in their own development, not in someone else’s conception. School was not a supermarket. Education was your trip.
While there were certainly teachers who had definite ideas about what to present to their students, and in what order, and others who delighted in responding to the flow a class generated, there were never any set achievement requirements. Working for graduation was a personal choice, and the requirements were negotiated, case-by-case, by the student, the student’s advisors, and the head of the school. But people who didn’t really work at anything were asked to leave, in fact, they were almost literally driven out, by communal disgust.
I was at odds with the school’s ethic by skipping out of painting critique. Indeed, quite soon there was no new art to present. I wasn’t doing any. But I was working daily — in the weaving lab, in Wess’s theater class, and I was reading and writing look-back essays everyday, but only for myself. Black Mountain left me alone which I seemed to ask for, and so I was without any feedback exchange of teacher /student or lone student/ larger class. I have missed out on that my whole life — both deliberate choice and unhappy accident. At Black Mountain I was private, writing for myself; I was passive, soaking up as much as I could of what passed around me, and it was a rich stream.
For Olson, radicalism was not socialism, but rather a willingness to see history as contending forces of wholes — ideas that could be impacted by someone’s indigestion in the night, by what the price of turnips did to farmland values, by a person’s desire to claim a personal change from the implacable weight of what had come before. History had no beginning. Something had always come before — and clarity was not the goal in the study of it.
Surrealism was distained. Abstraction was king. I admired Djuna Barnes, Georgia O’Keefe; my inclination was always to the narrative, and I was overcome that I couldn’t support my weak convictions. It seemed once again proof that girls were not capable. We were to cook and clean up. We were to produce babies. Olson valued women’s otherness and boasted about it. As if Martha Davis of Chapel Hill was in touch with the Goddess! Olson laughed at me for trying to understand. Did he mean that understanding was men’s work? It was easy for me to take it that way.
And yet, Black Mountain style was also a gust of profound expressively female freedom for me. Babies didn’t mean exile in a suburban kitchen surrounded by proper equipment. Black Mountain women improvised their clothing, cooked exotic peasant food, tied nursing babies to their waists with Mexican scarves. We’ve had the hippie era since that time. We’ve had a relationship revolution. Nursing is no longer scandalously unsanitary. In fact it’s the mothers with bottles who have to apologize for themselves. Paying attention to one’s children is no longer proof that intellectual, aesthetic, or business-world pursuits have been abandoned. Daddies today, from truck driver to corporate chief, routinely tote their kids, wipe noses, change diapers in the men’s room. Not then. Not 1955! Not only did women do these things exclusively, but beyond Black Mountain College, middleclass women did them out of sight.
Surrealism was distained for its adherence to system. For its European-ness. At Black Mountain, system was suspect wherever it could be discerned, as a possible trap, a cut-off, a bulwark against the awesome realm of the imagination. Novels that proceeded on a logical trajectory to resolution or (worse) epiphany were more than boring, they were propagandist and wrong. Back in Chapel Hill, mid-century modernism was Cubism and Le Corbusier; it was the paintings of Matisse and Picasso; it was confessional poetry that minded norms of rhythm and line breaks and Euro song-sing. It was Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell. And the Great American Novel was still the holy grail. Had Dos Passos done it? Would Steinbeck?
Charles said it was over, done by Melville, and worth a re-read yearly. Creeley said this was a different time, not a novel time at all. “A quick graph” describes his language. Stripped of sentiment and beguilements of romance. Process was the issue, not achieving conclusions. While abstraction eluded me, this idea spoke then and speaks now; in writing this I try again to practice it.
At Black Mountain people acknowledged there was something new in history. The whole globe could now be made uninhabitable with atomic warfare. We students could all remember when we learned this. (August 1945; I was eight.) What was different from similar acknowledgements in Chapel Hill was Black Mountain’s collective understanding that human apocalyptic capability altered a great deal more than political concerns. It was now a visceral part of how any of us did anything.
It doesn’t matter whether Charles Olson was a good teacher to me or not; or that my Black Mountain experience confirmed personal me in a pattern of withdrawal. It doesn’t matter who drank too much or who screwed whom or how. Black Mountain is important because it grew a language — in collision — that is still available for use. A language that works at getting at things, making connections that might be generative, a risky language not focused on defending itself, ranking itself, not devoted excessively to maintaining prestige and position. Black Mountain grew a capacity for essential bravery in some of its members, perhaps in many of them. Bravery is in this language. There’s a common willingness to go where the conversation will go, to allow a suspension of control. There’s a trace of this bravery in so many old Black Mountain students, even today.
Black Mountain, three months of it, brought me into this, and laid a way of speaking and thinking before me. It said connection matters, it said ethos matters. It, they, them, the spirit of the place. Said. Said to ask this:
“What do you mean?”
“Do you mean it?”
Martha King was born in Virginia in 1937. She attended Black Mountain College in the summer of 1955 and married Basil King in 1958. She began writing in the late 1960s, after the birth of their two daughters, Mallory and Hetty.
Living in Brooklyn since 1968, King produced 31 issues of Giants Play Well in the Drizzle (sent free to interested readers), worked as an editor in mainstream book publishing, then for Poets & Writers, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Her books include North & South (2007), a collection of short stories, Separate Parts (2002), and Little Tales of Family and War (1999). Other stories have been anthologized in Fiction from the Rail and The Wreckage of Reason. Currently, King edits a prize-winning magazine for the National MS Society and is at work on a memoir, Outside Inside, chapters of which have appeared in Bombay Gin and New York Stories.