Back in the 1970's, I wanted to publish the work of Bill Berkson. I'd seen a stray copy of a typescript of poems he'd somehow left--or perhaps someone had sold it?--of Blue Is the Hero Poems 1960-1975 [Kensington: L Publications, 1976]--at Serendipity Books, in its then location, on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, which was just around the corner from where I was living at that time, on Francisco Street. I'd been reading Bill's work in the magazines, and I'd become intrigued by its urbane flexibility and charm. Reading over the typescript, I realized that it was a manuscript he must be circulating around in search of a publisher.
Bill was already a big enough name by this time, having published three or four collections of his work--notably, the stylish Tibor de Nagy pamphlet Saturday Night Poems 1960-61 composed of work he'd done in his early twenties, a copy of which I'd found improbably in a small Co-op Bookstore while still an undergraduate at Berkeley in 1968. (What a great day scouting! I got Berkson's book, O'Hara's Love Poems, Towle's We Take A Drive, and Schuyler's May 24th or so, on that occasion, and I hadn't even thought about becoming a bookseller in those days.)
Contemporary portrait (from the rear)
Berkson had moved to Bolinas a few years before, and I sent him a letter proposing the collection, hoping for the best. A week or so later, he called, accepting the idea in principle, insisting that we adhere to certain standards of production and so forth, all of which I'd already determined to do before-hand, so the agreement was hashed out in short order. I'd published a group of his poems a little earlier in the poetry magazine I'd edited, L. It seemed like the perfect fit.
As publisher, I technically had some say in how the book would be "edited" though I knew Bill would be unlikely to credit my taste in choosing his work. I had had some favorites I'd seen in magazines over the years, and was hoping to get those in. A few didn't make it. One in particular, "Sheer Strips" had been printed in his classic mimeo book Shining Leaves [Angel Hair Books, 1969, with a cover portrait of BB by Alex Katz]. But Bill was adamant: "Sheer Strips" was to thin, or too trite, or too cliché'd, or too something. He related how Allen Ginsberg had told him the poem "had everything going on" in it, it was the ultimate camp happening poem of the New York School. On the evidence of that verdict alone, I thought it deserved inclusion, but nope, it was out.
Which brings me to his new book Portrait and Dream: New and Selected Poems [Coffee House Press, 2009], where I find that "Sheer Strips" has been restored to its rightful place among the best poems of the Shining Leaves period circa the late 1960's.
An OK Sunday
"folks down at the fountain--
they're not our people"
the racing season's over
nearly empty, sunning
the big spruce don't seem to mind
nor the maples
can drive around here and see some great sights
Skidmore's Texas-style new campus (Texas money encroaching)
hear Marshall Hampton and his Hamp for Soul Inc. at the
Grill ("no broken-bottle fighting, please, or outside")
The Doors on at Performing Art Center ("oooooo")
eat good fried chicken at the Chicken Shack
flies on old wire screens
mildew on the mansions
("zero percent chance of rain")
kids milling around with McCarthy buttons
still on, four days after convention
not so glum
they shoot the shit at ease on fences
The Red Barn and
other folks rocking out the porch at the Rip Van Dam the Adelphi
and congratulations Linda and Doug whoever you are
at the Holiday
Inn, muggy couples
the ceiling lowers, prices down
but grass prices up! two joints of soggy
and L'Avventura slips into focus
that was last night) Sunday
papers Sunday breakfast (always "missed")
Sunday Brenda Starr hard to come by here
for the New York Enquirer?"
well? huh? is it going to be a sun kiss and a hug? un huh?
or the burst you've all been waiting for?
and then what?
* * * *
A word about this version which I've typed inside Blogger: The original setting provided a lot more space between the lines, an effect which is really crucial to the way the poem functions metaphysically, on the page. You can look at this in two ways: One) the phrases are indeed like "strips" in space--strips of paper, ribbon, plastic, or like those crazy signs that crop-dusters drag across the sky to advertise a business--but they're "sheer" strips, sheer like nylon stockings, you can see through them, but the pattern (or the message) is still visible, like a screen or something. Two) the registration on the line-breaks is mechanical (with the fixed margin for the lines (stanzas?))--the first indent shift goes right down the poem in a straight line, defining space and giving the poem its backbone. There's a kind of regular aimlessness in the mood of floating conversational fragments which drift by; it's a dialogue of observations and remarks which catalogue the social milieus it glides over and around. The address is both glib and ironic (funny) while capitulating to its own exhaustion and angst at the same time.
It's a name dropper and an age-dater. The speaker is, say, young enough to believe in innocence, yet old enough to be cynical about it all. Is that the way we always want to be?--maybe at a certain point, while we're still in the running but no longer guileless to temptations. The social fact of the speaker's class is confident. That was how I usually thought of Bill, perfect equanimity and poise, with a sidecar of curiosity and mild skepticism. Not the kind you meet everyday, but familiar somehow.
The poem's weather is hot! The way it really gets hot in the Summer on the East Coast, it's damp and sunny and muggy and soggy and the flies are out on screendoors. Stuff is happening outdoors because it's too hot to stay in. The poem hopes for a light breeze, and provides its own just for effect. What to do on Sunday. Last night was Fellini. We've dated ourselves and the poem, because nostalgia isn't what it used to be. The Doors. Eugene McCarthy. Texas money is dirty but New York money is tough. Is this what a hangover feels like? You could quote me.
The poem has a lovely visual sense--working a little, maybe, off of William Carlos Williams's steps (from Desert Music or Pictures of Brueghel), the easy, casual, occasionally unexpectedly halting, shifting American foot as it walks up the steps of the Metropolitan to check out the latest exhibit. Whose people? Americans, no doubt, scratching in public and making a perfect nuisance out of themselves. It's a lowering of expectations, for sure, a democratic leveling out of alternatives in a city oppressed by merciless temperature. Emotional tourists on the look-out for exotic fly-byes. The poem stands or falls on its details, which parade by like floats made of fake flowers mounted on flat-beds. If it's the Fourth, then fireworks are due. What is the date, by the way?