THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF JOE BRAINARD.  Edited by Ron Padgett

 

Marjorie Perloff

541pp.  Library of America.  $35.00

 

 

Joe Brainard,

 

THE NANCY BOOK.  Edited by Lisa Pearson and Ron Padgett.

 

144pp.  Siglio Press.  $39.50.

 

 

 

When Joe Brainard—painter, book designer, illustrator, comic-strip writer, essayist, and poet—met his untimely death from AIDS in 1994 at the age of fifty-two, he had become a cult figure on the downtown New York art and poetry scene.  The work that made him famous was the distinctive autobiographical text called I Remember (1975), a series of short aphoristic, anaphoric sentences and paragraphs, each entry beginning with the words “I remember.”  Now the Library of America, known primarily for its publication of the collected editions of the great American classics from John Adams to John Ashbery (a devoted Brainard friend and fan) has brought out, in its Special Publication series, a Collected Writings, containing, along with the 130-page corrected edition (Granary 2001) of I Remember, a wide array of the poet’s fugitive writings—most culled from little magazines and ephemeral publications, some previously unpublished– along with a selection of Brainard cartoons and drawings and two interviews.   The collection has been meticulously edited by Brainard’s lifelong friend, the poet Ron Padgett, and the novelist Paul Auster has contributed an enthusiastic introduction.

To accompany the volume, moreover, the Library of America has put together a special website (http://www.loa.org/IRememberJoeBrainard/) where you can hear leading writers from Edmund White to Frank Bidart and Ann Lauterbach providing fond reminiscences of Joe.  The reverential tone of these video commentaries reminds one of the ardent response in 1966 to the tragic death of Frank O’Hara, struck by a beach buggy on Fire Island at the age of forty.  Like the charismatic older poet– in a 1969 diary, Brainard quipped “If I have a hero (I do) it is Frank O’Hara”—Brainard seems to have been adored by all who knew him; they can’t say enough about his charm, wit, brilliance, generosity, kindness, modesty, and just plain loveable nature.  I Remember, writes Auster, “is inexhaustible, one of those rare books that can never be used up,” “a work about everybody in the same way that all great novels are about everybody.”

Is such adulation excessive?  Perhaps not when it comes to I Remember but in the case of the less finished writings, the verdict is still out.  Born in 1942, Brainard grew up in the most average of average Middle America circumstances in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Ron Padgett, who was already his schoolmate in first-grade, recalls that in high school Joe was very popular, a kid whom everyone liked, whereas Ron himself was a loner, an outsider.  In New York to which both young men escaped as soon as they could, as did another schoolmate, Ted Berrigan, Brainard quickly became part of the Lower East Side (mostly gay) art scene—then a world of cold-water flats and seedy bars, a world in which an extraordinarily talented group of artists and poets had little money but lots of fun, partying endlessly and getting their art work shown in group shows at the smaller galleries and their writing published in the new little magazines. Collaboration—like Brainard’s on C Comics with Padgett, O’Hara, Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch in 1964—was the order of the day.  In Manhattan, as in Southampton or Vermont, where Joe spent his summers with his lifelong partner Kenward Elmslie, it was, in these pre-and post-Stonewall days, when AIDS had not yet been heard of (the first cases in the US were documented in 1981), a charmed Bohemian life—at least for the young.

All the good humor associated with this life—and with his childhood memories of the absurdly “normal” and super-straight Middle America of his Oklahoma family and friends—finds its way into the diaries collected here and especially into I Remember, that wonderfully droll litany of individual memories.  Here are some characteristic items:

I remember “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?”

 

I remember “Liberace loafers” with tassels.

I remember those bright-colored nylon seersucker shirts that you could see through.

 

I remember when in grade school you gave a valentine to every person in your class in fear that someone might give you that didn’t have one for.

 

I remember rubbing my hand under a restaurant table top and feeling all the gum.

 

I remember zipper notebooks.  I remember that girls hugged them to their breasts and that boys carried them loosely at one-side.

 

Anyone who has lived through the 1950s and 60s in America will read these sentences with a shock of recognition:  I can certainly remember the valentine ritual at school  and how it felt to find chewing gum stuck to the underside of restaurant table tops.  Brainard has an uncanny eye and ear for the telling images, precise sounds,  received truths, parental warnings, and grade-school repartee of the postwar years.  In so many ways, his story is indeed everyone’s story.   “I remember, when babies fall down, “oopsy-daisy.”   “I remember the rotating system of seating where, every Monday, you moved up a seat.”  Absolutely!

But I Remember is unique, not only for its luminous detail, but for its curious tension between innocence and experience, normality and oddness, the straight and the queer.  The hometown boy who remembers “vanilla pudding with vanilla wafers in it and sliced bananas on top,” “pillow fights,” and “chain letters,” is the same Joe who remembers the “very fat meat packer. . . who followed me home” in the Bowery: “Once inside he instantly unzipped his blood-stained white pants and pulled out an enormous dick.  He asked me to touch it and I did.  As repulsive as it all was, it was exciting too.”  Or again, “I remember my first sexual experience in a subway.  Some guy (I was afraid to look at him) got a hard-on and was rubbing it back and forth against my arm.  I got very excited and when my stop came I hurried out and home where I tried to do an oil painting using my dick as a brush.”

Such deadpan drollery is winning enough, but I Remember also has moments of slightly uncomfortable jokiness like the memory that “my father scratched his balls a lot” or “I remember (early New York City days) seeing a man close off one side of his nostrils with a finger, while blowing snot out of the other nostril onto the street. (Shocking.).”   Refreshingly candid?  Or too unpleasantly graphic?   Within the complex fugal structure of I Remember, in any case, such incidents are opposed to such touching snapshots as those of Joe’s hero Frank O’Hara:  I remember the day Frank O’Hara died.  I tried to do a painting somehow especially for him.  (Especially good.)  And it turned out awful.”  A page later: “I remember the first time I met Frank O’Hara. He was walking down Second Avenue.  It was a cool early Spring evening but he was wearing only a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows.  And blue jeans.  And moccasins.  I remember that he seemed very sissy to me.  Very theatrical.  Decadent.  I remember that I liked him instantly.”  And the mood is reinforced a few sentences further along by “I remember learning to play bridge so I could get to know Frank O’Hara better.”  “I remember playing bridge with Frank O’Hara.  (Mostly talk.)”  Two pages further:  “I remember one very cold and black night on the beach alone with Frank O’Hara.  He ran into the ocean naked and it scared me to death.”  And then, “I remember Frank O’Hara’s walk.  Light and sassy.  With a slight bounce and a slight twist.  It was a beautiful walk.  Confident.  ‘I don’t care’ and sometimes ‘I know you are looking.’”

The failed “painting” of the first entry above is more than realized by the time we reach the sixth.  The artistry of such suspension and displacement is remarkable, and I Remember is indeed a small masterpiece.  But what happens when the collage parataxis of this book gives way, as it does in most of the writings in this Collected, to the straightforward narrative and set of observations of the diaries, journals, and lyric poems?

A happy glory to sky!

Vitamin C I love you mornings

By night I absorb black

At twelve I eat Malto Milks

By the dawn’s early light it hails

Sometimes it rains. . . .               (“I like,”  1963)

This is a weak imitation of the pointed, explosive imagery and nervous lineation of  O’Hara’s Lunch Poems.  Brainard wrote few lyrics and we can see why.  More important, such texts as the 1971 Bolinas Journal (c. 50 pp.), which does feature amusing drawings, cartoons and little maps, is little more than a set of diary jottings, replete with entries like “Lots of dogs. / Lots of dope.  Visions of falling madly in love with Gordon.”  In Bolinas, the legendary beach town north of San Francisco which became a favorite of the poetry counter-culture in the sixties, Brainard came to know his West Coast counterparts: Robert Creeley and his then wife Bobbie, Tom Clark, Joanne Kyger, Philip Whalen, and Diane di Prima.  But unlike the Village, Bolinas was mostly a straight community, and Brainard captures his sense of outsiderdom quite movingly.  Still, his account of the endless partying, smoking joints, drinking too much wine, and acid trips, becomes boring, especially since it is laced with such assessments as “The Creeleys are great, Bob and Bobbie.  I really do like them a lot,” which invariably gives way to second thoughts like “The more I know Bobbie the less I feel I know her.”

What the diaries of the sixties and early seventies suggest—and the interviews at the back of the book confirm—is that, however charming, funny, and disarmingly frank this narrator could be, there is something missing here: perhaps the larger world beyond the little in-group where feeling is all.  “Is there a ‘gay sensibility’ that infuses your work?” asks interviewer Tim Dlugos  (a fellow AIDS victim and arguably a better poet than Brainard) back in 1977.  “I think it does [exist] in mine,” says Joe, “but I think it’s sort of closing out. . . . . I don’t think it’s that important to most kids now.”  This is not exactly profound; neither are the answers to the who is your favorite painter (de Kooning), TV comedian (George and Gracie Allen), or female vocalist (Judy Garland) questions.  For New York School devotees, every scrap of such information may may well be intriguing But even for these, 300+ pages of such material may be too much.  But, every now and again, as in the August 29th, 1967 diary, there will be a wonderfully camp remark that is vintage I Remember Brainard: for example, “If Jamaica is not as beautiful as I thought it would be, I am not disappointed.  I didn’t really except Jamaica to be the way I thought it would be.”  Or again, “For today there is nothing I want that I don’t have.  But there is a lot that I have that I don’t want.” Or this wonderful definition of GRASS:  “That which appears on the other side of the fence is usually grass.”

Brainard, in all fairness, was primarily a visual artist and superb cartoonist, as the recently published Nancy Book, featuring Brainard’s delicious parodic versions (from 1963 to the mid-70s) of the famous Ernie Bushmiller comic strip remind us.   The iconic little girl with her signature frizzy black page boy and cute little bow is featured doing all the things the original Nancy couldn’t do: for example, lift up her skirt to reveal a penis, the caption reading “IF NANCY WAS A BOY.”  Or Nancy as “Andre Breton at Eighteen Months,” Nancy as Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase,” and so on.  There are delightful collaborations with O’Hara, Ted Berrigan, and James Schuyler, among others.  The Nancy Book, elegantly produced with fine color plates and useful bibliography, has a useful biographical introduction, again by Padgett, and a second more impressionistic one by Ann Lauterbach that is as informative as it is beautifully written.  In her Coda, Lauterbach writes:

By the time Joe Brainard and I had become good friends [the 80s], he had virtually ceased making art.  Once, after a day of Christmas shopping, we stopped for a drink, and I had the temerity to ask him why.  He said, “I am not good enough,” and then in a variant, “I don’t have enough ambition,” or maybe, “the right kind of ambition.”

Lauterbach attributes this self-deprecatory stance to the changing climate in New York where “collectors, curators, and dealers were [now] playing for high stakes in the quixotic markets of finance, real estate, fashion, and fame.”  But it may just be that Brainard—astonishingly candid as he always was– knew his own limitations better than have his adoring friends, editors, and publishers.