I have been reminded over the past few months why Bard College was such a special place for me. While I tend to avoid alumni cocktail parties, it has been a kind of virtual reunion as I connect to old friends and classmates through their art. When we were all in our late teens and early twenties, we had dreams of being poets and artists—including me. I took a detour in 1967 that led to little more than a 250 page FBI file but for the others—Richard Allen, Josephine Sacabo, Dalt Wonk, and Paul Pines—who stayed true to their artistic vision, the fruits have been sweeter. I suppose the one thing we all had in common was a willingness to stay true to our youthful dreams even as we confront the American Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks—as Allen Ginsberg put it in “Howl”.
The first paragraph of Richard Allen’s introduction to “Street Shots/Hooky: New York City Photographs 1970s” certainly puts us in a Moloch frame of mind:
I woke up, New Year’s Day 1970, in a straitjacket. I had no memory, of anything, at least not at first. I was in an asylum on Long Island after taking an overdose of some pills a shrink gave me. Slowly awareness arose. First, I realized had to protect myself. Await… I asked to have the jacket removed and they did. Bit by bit memories came back. I could recall details of my childhood. I remembered I’d married my girlfriend Cathy, months ago, when she turned eighteen. Cathy and I had Peter, a son, now 6 months. In a few days I felt normal. Still, I had no job. But this is not my concern. No, it’s to finish editing a short comedy, completing a film I shot while on TV men landed on the moon. The film hung in hundreds of carefully cut strips an inch to many feet long, like drying fish, unique species, needing me. I had read a book on film editing and had just started when this came along.
I suppose that despite all his flaws, R.D. Laing was on to something when he described insanity as “a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.” The war in Vietnam, ghetto rebellions, psychedelics, the breakdown of the nuclear family, all worked together to make the case that we were living in an insane world, particularly those among us who were more open to such a perception—in other words, Bard College students.
If the world was going nuts, then Manhattan was the epicenter. Ironically it was also the epicenter of sanity since many of its denizens were striving to lead a life devoted to the arts and to peace. Richard Allen’s book brings back that 70s world to life. Despite all the horrors of the time, New York was a place of astonishing visual poetry. Using mostly black-and-white film and a Leica camera, Richard captured a moment in time. With the city now being taken over by hedge fund employees living in condominiums with Duane Reade pharmacies and nail parlors on the ground floor, you can get a good idea of what things were like 40 years or so from Richard’s collection. Nearly all of the photos are of people, and what’s more interesting than the characters of Manhattan? This is especially true when the photos are accompanied by the subjects’ words. After taking their photo, Richard invited them to identify themselves and offer up their impromptu thoughts. Ivan Bankoff tells Richard that he was once “the world’s greatest ballet dancer.” John Richardson, an African-American huddled against the wind, says, “If this is for posterity, tell them I’ve read Thoreau. And I know that love is the greatest thing.”
Here are some of my favorites:
“Street Shots/Hooky: New York City Photographs 1970s” can be purchased from the Book Culture stores near Columbia University and from BookCourt in Brooklyn. (Plans are afoot to make the book purchasable from amazon.com. I will announce that when it happens.) For those who lived through the 70s and those with a curiosity about a period that still lingers on in many ways, this is a perfect Christmas gift or a gift for all seasons, for that matter.
On October 26th I attended an opening for Nocturnes, the first book to be published by Josephine Sacabo and Dalt Wonk’s new venture Luna Press. If you go to the Luna Press website, you can see an intriguing video of a hand thumbing its way through the book.
Here is a photograph titled “Moon” taken by Sacabo:
Dalt wrote poems to accompany the photos. Here is the one he wrote to accompany “Moon”:
Would it be a stretch to say that the city of New Orleans, where they have lived for decades, is a primary influence on their esthetic? Although I have never been to the city myself, it seems that if any city in the U.S. could have inspired a hauntingly beautiful combination of word and image as “Nocturnes”, it is New Orleans.
Back in 1965, Bob Dylan was spending a fair amount of time at Bard. I am not sure if Dalt and Josephine ever ran into him there, but I am sure that they would feel some kinship with his take on their city found in volume one of his memoirs:
Right now, I strolled into the dusk. The air was murky and intoxicating. At the corner of the block, a giant, gaunt cat crouched on a concrete ledge. I got up close to it and stopped and the cat didn’t move. I wished I had a jug of milk. My eyes and ears were open, my consciousness fully alive. The first thing you notice about New Orleans are the burying grounds-the cemeteries-and they’re a cold proposition, one of the best things there are here. Going by, you try to be as quiet as possible, better to let them sleep. Greek, Roman, sepulchres-palatial mausoleums made to order, phantomesque, signs and symbols of hidden decay-ghosts of women and men who have sinned and who’ve died and are now living in tombs. The past doesn’t pass away so quickly here. You could be dead for a long time. The ghosts race towards the light, you can almost hear the heavy breathing- spirits, all determined to get somewhere. New Orleans, unlike a lot of those places you go back to and that don’t have the magic anymore, still has got it.
Nocturnes can be ordered from the Luna Press website.
I found out about the opening for Nocturnes from Paul Pines, the poet who has kept in touch with Sacabo and Wonk over the years. A month or so before the opening, I attended a reading for Paul’s latest book titled “Divine Madness”, words that evoke both the opening paragraph of Richard Allen’s photography book as well as Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”, a poem that served as the anthem for our generation in many ways.
The epigraph to Book Three of Paul’s collection comes from Carl Jung’s “The Red Book”: “…there is a divine madness which is nothing other than the overpowering of the spirit of the time through the spirit of the depths.”
This is an appropriate quote for a book of poems that owes much to mythology, both from the Mayan Indians to the ancient Greeks and Babylonians. Paul spent a fair amount of time in Guatemala, the experience of which helped him to craft his second novel “Redemption” that deals with the genocide against the Mayan peasantry.
Every one of the poems in “Divine Madness” is a jewel but I treasure this one especially:
December sun seeps into the woods orange yolk over bare limbs drips into a grove where woodpeckers tap tiny solos
a net cast
in the wake of the day
Chinese monarch King Wen
tells us the wanderer can progress in little things
when the source of light is farthest from the earth
and bends the prism
like a bow
and he finds himself surrounded by woodpeckers tapping out their eternal question
how to hold
in a net of changing light
“Divine Madness” can be ordered from Marsh Hawk Press.
Some closing thoughts. All of us are now in our sixties and above but it seems like only yesterday when we would be drinking “down the road” at a college pub called “Adolph’s” (named after the owner, born obviously before Hitler made the name taboo). The subject came up all the time about how Bard was totally unlike “the real world”, which for us could have been reduced to the one depicted in AMC’s “Mad Men”.
There’s always a tension between our ideals and the “real world” that in some ways is analogous to Plato’s story of the cave. It is a struggle to hew to our youthful ideals in a world that is fundamentally aligned with the insides of a cave, as testified by news reports that come our way on a daily basis, the latest of which is the kindergarten massacre in Connecticut.
Of all my Bertolt Brecht quotes, this is my favorite:
There are men who struggle for a day, and they are good. There are others who struggle for a year, and they are better. There are some who struggle many years, and they are better still. But there are those who struggle all their lives, and these are the indispensable ones.
Whether you struggle with a camera or a poet’s pen, or most quixotically with a propagandist’s, it is a Sisyphean task. Here’s my salute to those who never give up. Keep on keeping on.