On a postcard from Lewis Baltz to Geoff Young:
Dear Geoff, Just returned from Paris to find your ‘O Hermie, O Augie’ (an edited collection of letters between Geoff and Gus) waiting for me. I’ve never properly mourned Gus because I’ve never really believed that he is dead. I’m perfectly prepared to accept the Death of God, even the Death of Art, but the Death of Gus is inconceivable. Hearing his voice–loud and clear–in ‘O Hermie’ reconfirms my belief that Gus is immortal and eternal.
Below find an excerpt of Bldgs by Gus Blaisdell, his first essay on Lewis Baltz. Originally published in Three Photographic Visions, 1977. Republished in Gus Blaisdell Collected, University of New Mexico Press 2012.
I regret that I must begin in a quandary. But since I am in it and have been in it ever since I first began trying to think and write about Lewis Baltz’s photography over two years ago, this quandary is not only the place from which I must begin but it may also be the place in which, entangled, embroiled, and exasperated once again, I am forced to conclude.
Allow me to elaborate in a figure so that I may come to the various questions which will clearly indicate the ranges of my confusing (but not inchoate) concerns.
In the room in which I am presently writing this essay everything is concrete. That simple italicized phrase struck me the other morning with all the philosophical force of a secular revelation. And it persisted throughout the whole day, nagged during the conscious moments of a fitful night, and was still hauntingly present this morning when, in a mood of exasperation bordering on despondency, I once again sat down to yet another revision of my seemingly endless, as yet unfinished essay on the work of Lewis Baltz–my project a pile of notebooks, pages, file cards, jots and scribblings that has been with me nearly every day since that day in 1975 when I unexpectedly received in the mail a complimentary copy of The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California. As I leafed through the book it steadily dawned on me that Baltz was doing something in photography specifically and in art generally that had not been done before in either domain. His work stood forth as a summary limit and an extension, a point at which the promise in the work of others was engendered and fulfilled, and a point beyond which nobody else had gone. So strong was this conviction that it expressed itself paradoxically, that Lewis Baltz was a painter who had chosen photography instead of paint in which to make significant objects. The paradox here is not in the apparent restrictions consequent upon such a choice but in the media Baltz would be crossing and in the successful translations he would have to achieve. A painter who used photography–there was something of Japanese aesthetics in that, and in the restriction of means and the accepting of the automatisms that constitute photography, further limiting this medium to work in black and white fixed images.
Again, the above also had the philosophical force of worldly revelation and it has persisted, often annoyingly, throughout the years that have lead to the present writing in this room in which everything is concrete. Nothing here is abstract unless it is my mind or the meanings my written words may carry as my sentences achieve equilibrium. Everything in this room except mind and meaning is photographable, will yield an individuated aspect that can be fixed upon film. (The difficult “things in this room” that are not obviously individual and thus fixable are light, dark, and the shadows cast by the interruption of light by objects. None of these seem either trivially concrete or plainly abstract. Penumbral seems to be the accurate term here. And the penumbral is difficult for photography not only as object matter–what the camera points at out there–but also as subject matter, what gets fixed in the frame and shown in the print; and what takes its further meanings, beyond the frame and outside the print, from whatever network of knowledge happens to contain the print centrally and essentially like an idiom or a poem.)
The only conceivable thing in this room which might be wholly abstract in relation to every other photographable thing is a photograph by Lewis Baltz, Maryland 24, a photograph which is endlessly a reminder of this quandary in which I daily encounter my thought…
a poem discovered, unfinished, unsent,
from son to father
Dreamenwound so enhanced
High noon shadowless except
Under the soles of your boots
Glaring blaze of noon a sound
Silences engulf and swelter
“How can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods”
Around him throng the fathers
To press his gory hands
Horizon for these notions disappear
Erasing the ideas. A blackboard
Once had diagrams of the offense
Navy beats Army yesterday. And I say
This one is for you, my old dead dad.
For whom I was always being
Knocked galley west, my timbers shivered
The sun was always over the yardarm
Somewhere in the world. Aye, matey!
The Snake said, It’s the black spot for ye!
Can’t get back the dreamenwound
Lost in the bacon, toast, and scrambled eggs
In this morning’s breakfast
At the Frontier, another horizon, a limit To discoveries mainly indigestive.
a letter finished, sent, father to son
Dear Luc 12-6-84
Here’s a little something. Have a fine Christmas.
I also think of you a lot, concern and love, not worry and irritation. I too had trouble finding my place in a world that mostly scared me and one for which I felt almost completely inadequate: I was school smart but not worldly wise. I stumbled along and was lucky – as I said to you the last time we were together, if I could give you anything I have it would be my luck. But luck, it now occurs to me, is not passive. Good sense can be made out of believing we have a hand in our luck, we help make it, get ourselves in shape for it and ready ourselves to receive it (Religious people call this Gods grace because you can’t bargain for it. He gives or withholds it nobody knows how or why.)
You have a good heart and a sound intelligence. Anger and fear can offset the first, even ruin it. It is more important to have a good heart than a fine or great mind, and you have that, strong like your ability at basketball. I wonder how we could put it to the wonderful use it deserves?
Schools are odd places. They speak a strange language. Many people learn it, get the hang of the jargon – for that is what it is: plain English could as easily be spoken. But as with anything strange or foreign it can be translated into the more basic, plain and direct words of your own experience. You have to get the hang of it. One of the most important things we can learn is to be good listeners and to feel what other people are feeling, where they are coming from, their need, desires and wants. Would you feel ignorant if hearing Japanese spoken by me you didn’t understand what I was saying? No, because you could ask me to translate that into English and would know that if you could or wanted to you too could learn that odd language. Academese, the jargon spoken in schools, is just a sublanguage of English – like hipsters, bloods and Valley girls, and them argols. Learn to listen and feel, and don’t be fearful or angry. I’m reminded of something Gandhi said when he was asked by his disciples what they should do once he was gone. “Be a little kinder,” was all he said; great words, great feelings put directly and simply. Feel them. And you already have the kindness; the smarts can be picked up much more easily.
As you can see from where I began this note I’d not planned such a long letter. I guess I wanted to chat with you on the page. I want you to know these things I feel about you – kind, intelligent and loyal and loving. Nothing could be better. Your withdrawal from the world is also the world’s loss. God knows how much help it could use, how much goodness it needs –
If I go on I risk repeating myself. KISS, I tell myself. Keep It Simple Stupid, a fine rule for writing.
Don’t doubt my feelings for you.
I love you,
I just experienced the documentary film, I Am Not Your Negro directed by Raoul Peck based on James Baldwin‘s unfinished manuscript Remember This House. It is history that needs to be taught to all Americans. It is American History and can not be otherwise classified. My father, Gus Blaisdell, interviewed Baldwin in 1963. This is the article that appeared in the September issue of Alan Swallow’s Author & Journalist.
From Author & Journalist
September 1963 The Writer’s Journal
A KIDNAPPED PAGAN
by Gus Blaisdell
I am the man, I suffered, I was there,” runs the quotation from Whitman that introduces the reader to James Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room. Then what did he bring back” And, if suffering can be said to have a depth, how deeply did he suffer? The answers are to be found in his books and, more recently, in his meteoric rise as a public figure.
I know these questions, in an article on a writer, printed in a writer’s journal, could be answered very simply, if somewhat evasively, by merely listing Baldwin’s accomplishments in the field, mentioning a few anecdotes about his personal life, and quoting a handful of his multitudinously pithy sentences. This would be a relatively harmless, albeit academic, approach, innocuous; at best a kind of Child’s Garden of James Baldwin, at worst the deadly list of a pallid bibliographer or a landscape architect, I choose a more personal track in the hope that, with luck, I might accidentally succeed in giving the reader a little of the feeling of the man. I suppose this is to venture into a no-man’s land, to move out precariously beyond the wire, and to hope, however naively, that whatever fire I may draw will be badly aimed.
My point of departure is some years back, in Denver, before I met James Baldwin, although I knew and greatly admired his work which, at that time, consisted of two novels, Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, and two collections of essays, Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name. His powerful third novel Another Country, was nowhere in sight, except for a few oddments scattered throughout the quarterlies, and the vitriolic yest loving indictment of America, The Fire Next Time, hinted at in small asides in most of his essays, was not as yet a glint in anybody’s eye.
That time in Denver, at which I have chosen to begin, I was sitting in a grubby bar drinking too much beer and smoking too many cigarettes. The piano player, who sometimes blew a sweet coronet and dug around in the bass of the piano, accompanying himself with his left hand, had just launched into a blues of is own composition. His name was Kenny Whitson. He wore an auburn goatee, short cropped hair, and his eyes were very bright and intelligent. He sang, a little off key, in a flat , nasal voice: You got to lissen to yousef / Ever’ time you talk, / If it ain’t the truth, brother, /Then turn you back and walk.
I was struck by these blues and , writing about Baldwin now, with three novels and three collections of short stories to be published this fall, and also his first play, it seems to me that if these blues were meant for any living writer, they were meant for him. He does listen to himself, painfully, I’m sure, and carefully sifts out as much truth as he can get hold of; and nobody, not even the very saintly, gets a full does. He listens, sounding himself; and his rage and pain, his courageous hope and loving concern, all the seasons of his emotions, are lucidly contained in his straight forward and gracious and aristocratic prose, a prose without peer in contemporary English. And graphically embodied in nearly every national magazine, from Mademoiselle to Life to the cover of Time, we have a visual record of the man and his passion during his grueling, whistle-stop stumping for the Congress On Racial Equality [CORE].
Baldwin has had the audacious tenacity to explore and attack two of our most sacrosanct totems, sex and color, and if he has, like any writer, approached his subjects with a revolutionary attitude, still he has written about them with all the tenderness, integrity, love and courage befitting his care for America, his concern for its destiny and future.
There is no easy way for Americans to think about the subjects of color and sex because Americans are used to thinking about both topics only as Americans, the only wasy we can think. And we are an odd race. Whether the opiate is religion or sex, gin or beer, LSD-25 or hallucinatory mushrooms, we always find an excuse –calling it a reason–an alley in which to hide, or a diaper with which we gird our barely controlled loins. We wear armor, when we should go naked, when silence is all that is required; work, because leisure causes anguish; and fall asleep when labor is demanded. All this is not meant to suggest that Americans are somehow more stupid or less enlightened than,say, the French, the Swedish, or the Japanese. Rather, as Baldwin has pointed out innumerable times, I want to suggest that no matter what your particular country may be, there is always the special and unique problem of having to re-evaluate the institutions of your land in terms of yourself , not in terms laid down by society as constituting your self. Social institutions and rules are, I suppose, always normative. But when they become sacred and totemic, they are totalitarian and dictatorial. And what makes the initial venture into the examined life (another country entirely) so difficult and dangerous and, often, fruitless and destructive, is that when one comes to criticize the totems of, say, sex and color, one is immediately confronted with a seemingly insoluble dilemma: you discover you are thinking in precisely those terms which the course of your enquiry has already rejected as inadequate. But this is, if I understand him, the journey Baldwin has invited each of us to undertake. The unexamined life is not worth living.
“I conceive of my own life as a journey towards something I do not understand, which is going towards, makes me better,” he wrote in Nobody Knows My Name. “I conceive of God, in fact, as a means of liberation and not a means of control.” And in The Fire Next Time, he returns to the concept of God, grown totemic in the intervening years: “If the concept of God has any validity and any use, it can only make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”
It is his voice that surprises you at first; then it is his concentration and the passion with which he delivers his sentences. He speaks softly, as if off the top of his soft palate. His r’s come out as ah’s his o’s with an a-ish sound, and his face is softly composed, almost malleable in its expressions, but hard and determined from listening to himself.
He speaks easily and clearly, and he is always willing to say that he hasn’t an easy answer to that one, or that his interlocutor is confused. “The terms are wrong. We can’t talk clearly about that…yet,” and his face may break into a broad warm smile, or he may laugh with a visceral ebullience peculiarly his own. He is a beautiful man, and a very brave one, and a writer we should all be proud of, especially when he presses our faces into slops of our own making.
In one of his finest essays, a love letter to Norman Mailer called The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy, Baldwin makes a distinction, marking out the difference between Mailer and himself, that will later appear as one of the fundamental axioms of The Fire Next Time:
“There is a difference, though, between Norman and myself in that I think he still imagines he has something to save, whereas I have never had anything to lose. Or, perhaps I ought to put it another way: the things that most white people imagine that they can salvage from the storm of life is really, in sum, their innocence. It was this commodity precisely that I had to get rid of at once, literally, on pain of death. I am afraid that most of the white people I have ever known have impresses me as being in the grip of a weird nostalgia, dreaming of a vanished state of security and order, against which dream, unfailingly and unconsciously, they have tested and very often lost their lives.”
This essay caused an apparently irremedial rift between Mailer and Baldwin. Time and again Mailer has snipped at Baldwin in print. Baldwin has never replied. The split came over Baldwin’s criticism of Mailer’s White Negro, the Maileresque portrait of the American hipster and existentialist.
Somewhere in The Rebel, Albert Camus wrote that “every act of rebellion expresses a desire for order and a nostalgia for innocence.” And Mailer and Baldwin mutually enjoy the rebellious, existential stance. Both are concerned with the same issues, but their divergence is so radical and drastic that it often seems they inhabit altogether different worlds. Where Baldwin is religious, in some fundamental, rock-bottom sense, Mailer is romantic; where Mailer has gone into the penumbra of experience, where he has traveled to the very edge, and lingered too long, and been wounded, perhaps fatally, Baldwin has moved from the outskirts of the city into its epi-center, and made his uncomfortable residence in the ground-zero of the American heart. Consider the difference.
In the ubiquitous figure of the White Negro, Mailer has come to terms with atrocity by romanticizing it out of focus. His hipster is white, with a black soul-which is funky, the essence of hip his hipster lives, we are told, continually with the terms of death his benighted unconscious stamped with a limp metaphysical version of the extermination camp and the possibility of thermonuclear destruction, that fire next time; and his hipster is concerned with transcending the maddening mechanism of time, of kicking it entirely and entering what Cumming’s called the “one hell of a universe next door.” The only example of such transcendence Mailer has produced is sexual orgasm.
In short, whether Mailer’s effort is a brave one or a useless one, his hipster-the salvation of this cancerous world-is sadistic, anally erotic, an orgy-hunter, murderous,, and benumbed to such an extreme point that his only source of real pleasure lies in committing sexual atrocities. But when atrocity becomes thus palatable and sweet, however romanticized and apologized for, one has produced the monstrosity of an intellectual Buchenwald where, true to their penultimate calling, Mailer’s hipsters are the guards, at the outermost periphery of experience, giggling in their towers and clutching their machine guns like a young lover his new bride.
Necrophilia is not a way to come to terms with death, and a romantic abstraction of the ghoul or necrophile is neither very hip nor very existential. the pity of all this is that a fairly competent talent is wasting itself by merely reveling in the signs of a creeping putrefaction he diagnoses all around himself.
“The American bedroom has become a private concentration camp,” Baldwin said, talking quietly on the themes of color and sex. “And sexuality, sexual morality and sexual responsibility, is one of the biggest themes an American writer can undertake. It’s part of his responsibility as a writer, an obligation to himself. I suppose I put it in this way because America, at least in its conversation, comes on as so sexually enlightened and sophisticated. Well, it simply isn’t true, baby.”
In Giovanni’s Room, a novel ostensibly concerned with a doomed homosexual relationship, Baldwin explores the notions of responsibility and morality in the beginning of the novel, David meditates on his life with Giovanni and on Giovanni’s imminent death on the guillotine: “People can’t unhappily, invent their mooring post, their lovers and their friends, any more than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say yes to life.” This and a few other sections from Giovanni’s Room have been recorded recently on Calliope Records. On the back of this record there is a short illuminating quotation from the New York Times in which Baldwin states his attitude towards writing:
“I think I really helplessly model myself on jazz musicians and try to write the way they sound. I am not an intellectual, not in the dreary sense that word is used today, and do not want to be: I am aiming at what Henry James called ‘perception at the pitch of passion.”
In Giovanni’s Room and his third novel, Another Country, Baldwin comes close to realizing this desired perception. Another Country explores the problems created by color and sex in the lives of eight New Yorkers. It is written in a straight third-person narrative style and its hero and protagonist is a woman, Ida Scott. She is the only character in the book that Baldwin simply presents to the reader; unlike the other characters Baldwin never analyzes Ida, revealing her motives and weaknesses to the reader encapsulated in several paragraphs. Ida reveals herself, and she moves through New York like a fallen angel waiting for its wing to heal. She has no delusions. She is aware of her need for love, and she is equally aware of the limitations imposed on her solely because of the color of her skin. Even this knowledge does not cause her to live or love resignedly. She is, to use an archaic phrase, courageous, and, unlike the doomed Giovanni or David, Ida also wounded and betrayed, is still able to say Yes to life, without having to lick her wounds. She has not made a peace; she lives in a world of war-torn emotions and has come to terms with her world. Perhaps, because she is such a stride forward for Baldwin, Ida’s strength is, in fact, so great that she has forced life to come to terms with herself.
The virtues represented by Ida Scott become moral and philosophical principles in Baldwin’s latest and most controversial book, The Fire Next Time. Fire is part autobiography, part doomsday prophecy, and part exhortation.
“The spirit of rebellion,” Camus writes in The Rebel, “can only exist where a theoretical equality conceals great factual inequalities.” And the rebel’s most persistent, gnawing question is, “Is it possible to find a rule of conduct outside the realm of religion and its absolute value?” This is one of the basic questions posed in Fire and, in terms of this searching query, the factual inequalities of the racial situation are brutally unmasked.
No more water, the first next
Fire is a tough, grim book, its message is love, and what gives the book its body and sinew is Baldwin’s personal experience as an American negro incarcerated in Harlem, a ghetto in which he was set down to perish simply because his skin was black, the details and symbols of his life constructed and pre-established for him long before his birth. This is the more grisly aspect of a functioning totem, and Harlem, in Baldwin’s eyes, is a kind of unguarded extermination camp in which the victims undo themselves because they have allowed themselves to believe what “the Man” (whites) has said about them. It is one thing, and not an easy one by any means, to be an American; it is entirely something else to be both American and black:
“Yes, it does mean something- something unspeakable- to be born, in a white country, an Angle-Teutonic, anti-sexual country, black.”
Once we have learned to love each other, then, according to Baldwin, we shall no longer require the negro as a symbol and a scapegoat, an essential ingredient in filthy jokes, and a pornographically murky symbol of sexual prowess. But if we refuse, if we continue to hold the negro in abeyance, the result might possibly be disastrous.
“If one is permitted to treat any group of people with special disfavor because of their race or the color of their skin, there is no limit to what one will force them to endure, and, since the entire race has been mysteriously indicted, no reason not to attempt to destroy it root and branch. This is precisely what the Nazis attempted. Their only originality lay in the means they used. It is scarcely worthwhile to attempt remembering how many times the sun has looked down on the slaughter of innocents. I am very much concerned that American Negroes achieve their freedom here in the United States. But I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been down to them…
Whoever debases others is debasing himself. That is not a mystical statement but a most realistic one, which is proved by the eyes of any Alabama sheriff—and I would not like to see the Negroes ever arrive at so wretched a condition.” (Italics Baldwin’s.)
Throughout this piece i have often compared Baldwin to Camus. This comparison, I believe, is apt and precise. Baldwin, like Camus before him, is staking his life on life itself and, without the help or hindrance of religion, he is looking for human nobility and grandeur in a world that is , possibly, heading toward self-destruction. Nobility, graciousness, courage, candor, and bravery are pretty unhip concepts; sin, love, and guilt, have been laid to rest on the analytical couch, and the spirit of rebellion has been totemised into managerial conformity. But in the strong pen and compassionate heart of a small, wiry, relatively ugly man called James Baldwin, a kidnapped pagan, we have a voice that embodies the dilemmas of our epoch in the same way that Camus represented ourselves to us. Perhaps, if the bones roll right in the future, America will be very proud of having produced a black replica of Camus. At this point, I suppose, all one can do is offer Baldwin a few prayers: the ground-zero of the heart is far more dangerous a place to sit than the no-man’s land of the mind.
From the abq journal 1996
Living Batch’s Last Day Dec. 24
The Living Batch, one of the oldest bookstores in New Mexico, is closing next month, after being in business on the same block for 27 years.
On Dec. 24 it will shut its doors at 106 Cornell SE, which is next door to the Frontier restaurant.
“The main reason we’re closing is that I don’t want to do it any more,” said owner Gus Blaisdell, a parttime film instructor at the University of New Mexico.
But that decision is influenced by several factors.
One is the arrival of the mega-bookstores in the Northeast Heights.
Their immediate effect is that a variety of customers no longer shop at the Living Batch.
“Before the superstores, we discovered that the most interesting sale days in our store were weekends. People drove from all over the city to come and shop,” Blaisdell said.
Another factor is his disenchantment with mainstream publishing.
“The price of books is excluding young readers,” he said, noting that three hardback books can retail for as much as $100.
Blaisdell said he’s considered, and rejected, the notion of reducing the store’s space and narrowing the subjects to what the Living Batch specializes in — alternative fiction, poetry, politics, art and architecture, psychoanalysis and works from small presses.
If the store changed its direction and size, Blaisdell said, there probably wouldn’t be sufficient readers to buy books “in these prices, in these times in Albuquerque.”
In addition, he said, none of his children nor present or former employees expressed interest in maintaining the bookstore.
“A literary period of mass readership for the small bookstore is passing out of democratic politics,” Blaisdell said. “I think inexpensive books should be available to a large number of people, if they want to read.
“So, through various circumstances, we have become extinct.”
Meditations I Rodin
Gus at UNM Press 1966 by Arthur Lazar
Memorial tribute by Ira Jaffe
Life is decidedly less pleasant without the option of phoning Gus Blaisdell to have lunch or tea and share concerns and opinions. He had a gruff, dismissive side, so his warmth and its restorative effect could be startling. Also, he was more than funny. Victims and witnesses will testify that his wit could shatter the motor control and equilibrium of perfectly fit, healthy adults. Large audiences in museums and movie theatres, eager for Blaisdell’s accounts of the Beat generation or of Kurosawa’s cinema, proved as vulnerable to his wit as were individuals who simply joined him for drink or food. It’s unlikely he would have been so funny, or so sympathetic, were it not for his seriousness. In one of his essays he noted that social company had relieved philosopher David Hume of the despair that attended Hume’s skeptical reflections. This observation about Hume appears in Blaisdell’s essay “Skeptical Landscapes” which accompanies photographs by Lewis Baltz in the book “Park City,” produced by Artspace Press of Albuquerque and Castelli Graphics New York in association with Aperture, Inc. In meditating on unsettling photographs of arid landscapes that incorporate litter and fragments, the residue of abandoned mines, and what Gus termed “disheveled moments in the construction” of a ski resort near Salt Lake City, Gus focused at one point on what people mean by value and how they arrive at it. He writes, “The presence of waste, trash, litter, rubbish, tailings, scraps: of the shunted aside, discarded, junked, and thrown away—that there is such stuff implies an antecedent process of value, intention and purpose. Waste is an end-product, the consequence of value.” In my view Gus’s strong concern about value accounts for his seriousness as much as does his preoccupation with philosophical skepticism, with doubt about the existence of other minds and external objects. If, as he wrote, “at any moment thinking may reel, tip over, and fall into that bottomless pit full of nonsense,” such thinking partly concerns value. If life at moments feels haunting, nightmarish, and impossibly lonely, the cause in part is our reckoning with unthinking smugness about value, and, thereby, with injustice: “Anything that is,” he writes, “is a fit subject for philosophizing, and nothing can be excluded as of its nature unfit or unseemly; and especially not what the conventional wisdom, that collection of hardened, self-validating expectations, regards as beneath contempt, revolting and disgusting. For the world is unfair and the freedom of inquiry must often lie in the refusal to consent to the ways in which the world has been prepared for us—to the way opinion words the world for us.” I would like to read the inclusiveness of Gus’s words set in the context of philosophy to apply to people as well as things, and to suggest Gus’s aspirations and ours for equality and community in general. In this reading, nothing and no one is valueless or left out—socially, politically, or philosophically. Gus’s expansive statement helps account for his surprising bouts of patience, and for his love and thoughtfulness, as well as for his abstentions and dissents from conventional opinion and behavior. Incorrigible in a way, he also was courageous. One of his greatest determinations in an age of great busyness and speed was to keep time open for study and thought. Fortunately, lunch or tea with any number of us became such a time—for study and thought along with relief. We were all fit in our way, partly thanks to him.
Gus Blaisdell, writer and educator, died in Albuquerque on September 17, 2003, four days before his 68th birthday. Blaisdell created and taught popular courses in cinema studies such as “Teen Rebels” and “Poetry and Radical Film” for almost 25 years at The University of New Mexico, where his work helped to establish a program and then a department in media arts. Blaisdell also taught in the Department of Art and Art History, and served at UNM on numberous master’s degree and doctroal committees. Previously Blaisdell had taught philosophy and mathematics for six years at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro. Blaisdell’s publications were as various as his teaching. His critical essays addressed still photography, motion pictures, painting, and philosophy, among other subjects, and he lecured widely in Europe and the United States. His book with photographer Lewis Baltz entitled “Park City” was published by Leo Castelli Gallery of New York City in 1981; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art published his monograph on painter Guy Williams the following year. A former student of literacy critic Yvor Winters at Stanford University, Blaisdell also composed books of poetry and fiction, including “Fractionally Awake Monad”, “Prose Ocean”, and “Dented Fenders”, all in the 1970s. Blaisdell savored friendships with internationlly renowned figures in the arts and humanities, including Baltz, philosopher Stanley Cavell, the writer, Evan Connell, poet Robert Creeley, and art critic Max Kozloff. Along with his teaching and writing, Blaisdell was proprietor for many years of the Living Batch bookstore, founded by Pancho Elliston, where Allen Ginsberg and other poets read and discussed their work amid the Batch’s legendary cornucopia of new and used books. Blaisdell also ran Living Batch Press, publisher of handsome, spacious books of poetry and prose by Clark Coolidge, Ronald Johnson, Geoffrey Young and others. As much as anything, Blaisdell relished warm and witty conversation, often conducted in the public sphere. He would meet friends, colleagues, and students in popular Central Avenue restaurants near UNM and Nob Hill to take up sundry topics of the day such as movies and politics. He seemed to value the raw, theatrical space of the boulevard as much as he did the classroom, though privacy and quiet were also essential to him. Born in San Diego, he became an unusually visible, vital presence in Albuquerque, the city he adopted in 1964 and came to love and serve. He died of a sudden heart attack on Central Avenue.
Donations in Blaisdell’s memory can be made to the Gus Blaisdell Scholarship in Critical Writing at the UNM Department of Media Arts.
Headdress of candle flames or engorged coxcombs; muscle-shirt rolling and bopping with bulges; and his cloth phallus thrust and wobbled by his raunchy hunching hips, Larry Goodell steps out upon the stage, possessing and invaded by his own poetry and paraphernalia. In the course of his caperings the stage becomes a charged piece of this whirling planet as he enacts, incarnates, and embodies in performance what poetry must have once been like before it was expurgated categorically into epic, which was tribal and gave to the bard shaman-like powers; into lyric, in which a single voice, sometimes masked, sometimes naked, hymned his friends, mourned them too, or celebrated Olympic as well as battlefield victories; and into tragedy, where the polis gathered to see itself confessed in the tension between the good sense of community and the overweening individual desire for knowledge or personal justice.
Goodell’s poetry is more ancient than these first, classic, Aristotelian resolutions. It is antediluvian, the seed and essence out of which these later categories will grow, twistedly—so twisted that the root and origin will be forgotten. And his poetry is also deeply comic, in a sense so attenuated as to be nearly unremembered: it is the work of the clown of power who ridicules as he celebrates the absurdities of being and existence, who probes Dasein, if you’ll permit that lugging term, with a hard-on, who stinkfingers existence, and who in his lightest and most powerful moments seduces the young woman, who is also being, into playing Doctor in the backrooms of bars like the now archaeological Thunderbird in Placitas, Goodell’s home. It was in the T-Bird that Goodell gave some of his most memorable performances to a wonderfully drugged and drunken audience willing to be gathered together by the powers of his poetry; making cohesive and momentarily coherent a disparate, desperate bunch of discrete creatures all tottering on the edges of every imaginable variety of unconsciousness, bloatedly expanded consciousness, and violence; and for an hour or so magnetizing the iron rings in them all, connecting himself with the ironic and co(s)mic sources of his own art, until not only the audience but the whole bar was, like the planet upon which it all spun, rocking and rolling through spaces public and private.
Obviously this is not the poetry of page and podium, book and lectern. The page is the speaking poet; the podia are quite literally the poet’s own dithyrambic feet seeking a measured rhythm in the midst of riot; and the book has become a score, the lectern tossed aside so that the poet, bedecked, can enter into the very medium in which he works: poesis dramatized. Here drama is a form of incarnation rather than performance, and it dilates the present to metaphysical proportions.
Antediluvian, I said, and by that I meant some prelapsarian time well before the Flood, when a being like Goodell could be both bird and snake, when these two powerful avatars shared a single phylum and before we separated them into specialized species, dividing essence as we do labor. The metamorphosis in Goodell’s works, speaking still in avatars, would be that one in which a snake sloughed his skin, shed scale for feather, and emerged surprised in radiant plumage readied for flight. In the peacock, for example, one can clearly see the snake. But in his plumage, in the hushed fanning out of his tail, one sees far beyond the peacock. As his eerie screams transform into the metaphysical, peacock becomes phoenix. Beyond the phoenix is the demigod, Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent. Beyond the demigod? Only the Sun itself.
Goodell is pre-Choric, a single manic creature wrestling with making sense out of being. His is a poet’s tongue, untwisting the commonplaces that tie it so that he may speak out clearly, the poem enveloping him; and as he speaks it out, dissolving the membrane, it becomes an action best represented by a breathless flame unraveling upwards, climbing higher for more air, more light, until the air thins and, subsiding, the consuming flame is extinguished. A priapic clown, shoving it up the world, he is exploring and inventing existence with hoots and a virile member. Locally, in the ancient Pueblos, this clown would be a mudhead, a creature still confused with the earth and blood into which he was thrown from the between piss and shit of his birth—anciently obscene, secular, profane as dirt, autochthonous. This is a creature like those wonderfully androgynous beings in Aristophanes’ contribution to The Symposium: creatures who sought each other, one always in need of the complement of the other, and who seemed to think they might put back together the sundered halves of the world by fucking each other crazily, restoring the anciently divided essence—whether of snake or bird, man or woman, being or nonbeing. Silenus Goodell! A creature who just can’t get enuf of it!
Poet as dancer, as chanter or singer who compels assent and prayer, he is the one who steps out of the poetic swamp, or slithers out, who rises above his own storming and confusion. As high as he can get on his oddly jointed limbs, he rests briefly above his work, his head coiled in feathers or lifted above rustling cool coils of scales. His body halts momentarily atop the locked joint of a single extended leg, the other tucked up below. Out of the nesting feathers of the body the head lifts, the eyes beady with concentration, the craning neck serpentine. Then the uplifted leg descends into the waters of the slough; the neck slides over and down, and as the talonful of rich muck is raised from the bottom, this creature either minutely inspects its contents, listing the details and making a poem, or else, dissatisfied with the results of his analysis, hurls this mud rich in restorative virtues into the roaring faces of his tipsy, toppling, soaring audience.
Truly to laugh with Goodell, to understand his Old Comedy, is to see revealed the weakening prehensile underpinnings of common sense; it is to see laid bare our uncommon prejudices and the contingency of what we commingle. On whirls the world: on the poet’s fingertip or, transformed by his rhythms, upon the nose of a seal—that sea lion of being that Hart Crane evoked from the beach once and for all, writing beyond himself: “Bequeath us to no earthly shore until / Is answered in the vortex of our grave / The seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.” This fleeting glance beyond is also the clown’s roaring, rapturous disillusionment with being.
I have used extended figures to explain the work of a man who is essentially a mixed metaphor. My purpose has been to evoke in the reader a feeling of Goodell. Yet the point implied throughout the preceding, and the point most worth making, is that Larry Goodell is a natural—a category that academe either explicitly denies, actively discourages, or has forgotten. Goodell is the poet fully gripped by song, the man who must dance, just as a goat must leap or make himself attractive to other goats by pissing down his throat. The natural is today treated as the aberrant, the freak, the perverted, and the consequence is that poetry now is only muttered up and printed on the page. Yet there is in art, as there is in sport and mathematics and chess, a prodigious category, full and exuberant and youthful. It is the category of the natural—swimmer, shortstop, painter, poet, or jazzman—and local examples include Goodell, Bill Pearlman, and Kelly Robertson. They are not shamans because they are unsponsored by a group and because they are not representative of a collective mind. They span only themselves. Free in their creations, which come from the isolate powers of their singular imaginations, they are their own centers, single points eccentric to academic circles. The sources and wellsprings and powers they display are not held in common. They are their talents themselves, all alone out there, dangerously ventured in their own originality.
Without this category of the natural, art of any kind is impossible. Because? Because against what academe teaches, theory only succeeds art—in a quiet, active meditation on work done by oneself and others. And art, if it is genuine, is a response of the whole individual to being-in-the-world, and it is not, not primarily anyway, the dramatic solution to an anteriorily posed critical problem. Having chosen not to deal with the natural, not to groom or train or nurture it, academe is left with only its own accomplishments—the brilliant but gelid genres of the modernist novel and poem, achievements somehow against the grain—and that turgid confusion of filched formica laurels, an arbitrary criticism that seeks to usurp and absorb its object and thereby, by digestion, to gain autonomy. But food digested, though it nourishes, turns to shit. –Well, but doesn’t everything? Ultimately, I mean. If you don’t know the answer to that one, you’d better keep on reading. (The proper question is not what survives but rather what does not turn to shit.)
Insofar as Goodell’s work is not academic neither is it part of the current late modernist movement of conceptual or performance art. Performance art is reactionary and self-conscious and offers its antics as a solution to a critical problem. Performance art is a dramatic response to what the performer believes cannot any longer be done in painting or sculpture. It is hysteria caught up and wedged between the slowly contracting walls of the two-dimensional and the three. In Michael Fried’s term it is theatrical—a bedecking of despair in which the performer simultaneously mocks himself and his work in the hopes that his ridiculed audience’s reactions to his own display of failure will, in complicity, acknowledge that to fail is really to achieve. It is as if Hemingway’s hideously painful gut-shot hyena in Green Hills of Africa were performing his death in order to win his killer’s approval. The shortest version of all this is the unexamined axiom of much bad modernist thought: that a vanguard precondition on having a subject is to declare the impossibility of a subject matter to be your subject matter. Yes, if you are Mallarmé, Bird or Trane, or Creeley. Otherwise the result is John Ashbery, a latter-day reincarnation of Wallace Stevens’ “muttering king,” who maunders among the shivering hinds of his verse like Elliot Gould’s overly murmurous, throwaway Philip Marlowe in Altman’s The Long Goodbye—an endless investigation of the erosion of imitative form by what it imitates.
Though natural, what is superb about Goodell’s enactments is that his is a naturalness re-achieved and against odds. His achievement of Old Comedy occurs in his unabashed willingness to say what comes to mind and, while avoiding the theatrical, to become, if needs be and the world demands it, the mouthpiece of ventriloquil being—by turns dapper Charlie McCarthy or bumpkin Mortimer Snerd—where a burp can become oracle, a Delphic choking or gargle, and a pratfall can jar loose the world. Goodell’s achievement gives credence to the comic’s ancient retort to How do you do it?—I just make it up as I go along. (And I am always going along!)
Certainly the priest’s vestments are nothing more than one resolution of the clown’s motley—just as the arithmetical norm called meter, the justice of the written poem, is merely a resolution of the poet’s own heartbeat in his jarred-loose response to an outtakilter world. A commodious vicus of recirculation: the poet in flight, or meditating, thinking down into the scales and pinions of himself, coiled to fly or strike or struggle. And once the recirculation begins within him and then passes to the audience, the measures of the poet keeping it all balanced just this side of frenzy—well, then the line comes inevitably to mind, filling something like a mind now held in common: “The light foot hears and the brightness begins.” (The line is a whole poem, Robert Duncan meditating on Pindar.)
I’ll close my prosaic anacreontic with a reminder in the inspired words of Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed:
“For poetry is so out of the ordinary that it could not appear unless the world itself wished for it. Not alone the poetry of poetry, but the poetry of prose—whenever the time of saying and the time of meaning are synchronized.”
[This essay appeared in the inaugural issue of ARTSPACE: Southwestern Contemporary Arts Quarterly, volume 1, number 1, Fall 1976 (where, unfortunately, inexperience left it riddled with typographic errors).]
Gus has a shelf in his study filled with found objects.
They glow in the south window,
they resonate in memory.
Gus has a grandson named
He twirls a phrase like other children swing
tin pails at the beach.
bop de bop de bop de bop.
This beat is coded in his genes.
How many varieties can there be
of fruit from this one loquat tree?
Marshal Will Kane turns back
each semester. Gus asks his students
Can you hear it? Do you GET it?
There’s courage in this art,
no art without courage.
It’s always nearly noon,
ask Wen Ho Lee.
Bop de bop de bop de bop.
A friend from Socorro days asks me
are you related to Gus
Let’s skip a survey of the intervening decades
and turn to objects that glow in memory.
Gus taught a class there.
Are you related to Gus by
Bob de bop de bop de bop.
How many varieties can there be
of fruit from this one loquat tree?
Translate loquat from Mandarin: Rush Orange.
Pronounce its taxonomic name:
Follow it hanging in the western sky,
round burnt orange disk.
Follow it to the first tree
rooted in oriental earth, rooted in Adam’s memory.
Seeds from this one tree blew across oceans,
flowered in strange, distant worlds.
Can you hear the rhythm that carried these seeds?
Do you GET it?
Bop de bop de bop de bop
16 Sept 2000
“Written for Gus” Sixty-Fifth Birthday