by the sea
in my memory
and sees all things and to him
are presented at night
the whispers of the most flung shores
from Gloucester out
I look up from my book to discover snow falling. The softly whirling flakes mute the lights from our neighbor's house across Wonson Street, piling up on sidewalk and roadway, catching on window sills and empty flower boxes.
It's early in December of my first year back from Italy. I'm living in my parents' house again. For three winters I've seen no snow. When I step outside to move the car from our narrow street so the plows can get through, I'm entranced by the curtains of white that fall across the windshield.
I continue driving up the Rocky Neck Causeway to East Main Street and over Point Hill, which connects with Main Street. I cross the intersection of Main and Prospect streets, heading down Union Hill, past Gorton's 19th century redbrick office building, where my friend Jonathan Bayliss works. I'm alone. There are no cars on the street, nor are there any pedestrians.
The city is silent. The street lights illuminate the gradually drifting snow. The snow itself is feathery. Already several inches have accumulated, though I have no trouble making my way through the storm. The Volkswagen, which I bought in September to commute to work, handles perfectly and I'm warm inside it.
I pass Gorton's Seafood Center, where I worked packing frozen fish portions during the summer before I sailed for Italy. I'm now in the East End of Main Street next to the North Shore Theater, where I've seen most of the movies of my childhood. Looking through the glass front doors, I find the lobby empty. As I continue past the Cape Ann Diner toward Brown's Department Store, I encounter no one. Not even the city plows are out.
Yet the snow continues to fall. Diagonally across Main Street from Brown's and opposite Cameron's Restaurant is the Hotel Gloucester, once the Chelsea, at whose bar I often stop for a drink on my way home from teaching high school English in Winchester.
All the stores are closed and Main Street is deserted. I drive through the West End, whose 18th and 19th century redbrick buildings are soon to be imperiled by Urban Renewal. I turn left at the end of Main Street to enter the Fort section of Commercial Street, where Charles Olson lives with his wife Betty and son Charles Peter. As I drive past their apartment at 28 Fort Square, I can see the lights on in the top floor bedroom where Charles writes at a long table piled with manuscripts and copies of old town histories and court documents.
Olson's friendship and that of Jonathan Bayliss, a Harvard and Berkeley educated novelist I've recently met, and poet Vincent Ferrini, whom I've known since I was fifteen, is the main reason I've chosen to remain in Gloucester. It's comforting to me that Charles is at work high above the harbor as the snow thickens and one can hear the penetrating moan of the foghorn out beyond the Breakwater, visible from his windows. Soon I will be home in front of my own typewriter or writing in the ring-bound pages of the journal I've carried all over Europe.
I negotiate the narrow street of Fort Square, turning left at its end to return to Commercial Street, lined with fish processing plants, now closed for the night. The wharves behind them are tied with fishing vessels that will probably not sail before dawn if the snow keeps falling.
I continue along Rogers Street, which runs parallel with Main Street close by the waterfront and inner harbor. Again, there isn't a soul on the street and my car is the only one out, though I think I finally hear the distant rumble of a snow plow. I drive past the Coal and Lumber Company, near Ivy Court and the Fitz Hugh Lane House, where my mother was born, returning to Rocky Neck along the route I've previously taken. The snow is thick on the ground now and the road more slippery; but I make my way easily up Union Hill, heading home again.
The street lights illuminate the houses along the way, their white clapboards and green shutters; and the snow renders the city timeless, blurring contemporary aberrations like asbestos shingles or aluminum siding, except for an occasional neon sign on the bars. It's again the Gloucester of my childhood, and of my mother's. As I drive back toward Rocky Neck along East Main Street past the old flake racks of Gorton's, past the Beacon Marine Basin and Shores Wharf, where as high school students my brother and I spent Saturday afternoons reeling fish nets, I feel myself at home again...
Charles Olson knew me before I knew him. He once told me that he used to see my mother wheeling me up and down the Boulevard in my baby carriage. Sometimes he'd stop and chat with her in front of my father's luncheonette and soda fountain next to the Cut Bridge on Western Avenue, where Olson often bought his cigarettes and used the pay phone. It would be nice to say that I remember this gigantic figure towering over my carriage. But the fact is that I didn't lay conscious eyes on Olson until twenty years later, in 1959, when I was 21 years old and on my way out of Gloucester to Europe.
Still, I remembered my parents' stories about Olson. It was during his last two years at Harvard, between 1937 and 1939, that they knew him best, although Dad said he recalled Charles as a teenager. He said it was Olson's great height that stayed with one, and the fact that when he was an undergraduate at Wesleyan — or maybe later at Harvard, where he'd been a graduate student in the American Civilization program-that Charles impressed everyone by coming into the store dressed in a huge raccoon coat.
Then there were the political discussions. My father idolized FDR, and Olson, who would soon be employed in Washington at the Office for War Information and subsequently by the Democratic Party, appeared happy to talk politics with Dad. "Oh, Charles could argue," Dad said. "He'd give it to anyone at the counter who didn't agree with him."
Not to speak of the phone calls. Dad said that Charles kept him in the store long after closing time. He'd be folded up in the telephone booth, nearly seven feet of him, hunched over the receiver, deep in conversation with what Dad referred to as "one of his girl friends." And then he would squeeze out of the phone booth, leave the receiver dangling, and importune my father for more nickels. Sometimes it was midnight by the time he let my father close and come home to my mother, just as it would later be three, four, five in the morning when I would finally beg off, pleading babies' early awakening, and drag myself home to my wife, who would be angry mostly because she missed all that marvelous talk with the man who adored her Harvard beets. (Charles once importuned Jeane to prepare a dish for him at two in the morning, having knocked on our bedroom window on Farrington Avenue to awaken us).
During the intervening twenty years, between my childhood and our first real meeting, I encountered Charles only in print. I read the earliest versions of the first Maximus Poems in Vincent Ferrini's Four Winds, beginning in 1952, when I was in high school. But the poems in that groundbreaking little magazine that most affected me were by Ferrini himself, who became an important mentor to me, Olson's friend and long-time correspondent, Robert Creeley, and Denise Levertov, whom I was to meet many years later when we were both teaching at Tufts. I don't think I was ready for Olson's obliquities or for his unrelenting localism, even though I had walked the terrain of those poems daily.
I wasn't ready for Olson as an undergraduate either. When I first discovered his verse and the seminal "Human Universe" essay in Evergreen Review, I had barely served my apprenticeship with Pound and Williams and I was still under the influence of the dense, hermetic, New Critical verse of the 1950s. In fact, it was a photograph of Olson on the back cover of the magazine that first attracted my attention. It showed a balding forty-year-old man with a thick mustache, naked to the waist, writing at a table by an open window. On the rough wooden table was an overflowing ashtray, a ceramic cup, and a nearly obscured bottle of Parker's Scrip ink. In the foreground one observed a straw-covered wine flask with its cork crookedly replaced. Although I was later to learn that the photograph had been taken by Jonathan Williams at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where Olson taught between 1949 and 1956, I at first assumed it showed Olson at work in Gloucester because it seemed to reflect the Bohemian atmosphere of the artists' studios I was familiar with on Rocky Neck, where my father had opened his new luncheonette and S.S. Pierce grocery store, in 1951. A biographical note announced that Olson had returned to his "hometown of Gloucester, Massachusetts," which affirmed what Vincent Ferrini had told me the previous summer, that Charles was back in town and I should go see him.
When I opened the Spring 1959 Evergreen Review to find "The Company of Men," dedicated to the San Francisco poet Philip Whalen, I was both puzzled and intrigued. It was decidedly a Gloucester poem:
Or my dragger
who goes home with
arete: when his wife
complains he smells like
his Aunt who works
for the De-Hy
he whips out
and says, how does this
It spoke of the Gloucester I knew from having worked on fish during the very summer the poem had been composed. Yet Olson's weaving in and out of history, his comparison in the first section of the poem between "the company of men/one in front of my eyes, bringing in red fish, the other/the far-flung East India Company of poets who I do not/even know" was challenging. I had learned to handle such juxtapositions in Pound. They would generally involve classical allusions, or I'd recognize some lines or a simile from the Commedia, or maybe a quotation from John Adams or Thomas Jefferson that would make sense. Nevertheless, Olson was using the details of daily life in Gloucester in a way I'd never seen them used before. What was familiar to me, or what ought to have been familiar-the "De-Hy," which is what everyone in town called the State Fish Pier plant that turned fish waste, or gurry, into by-products like fertilizer or mink food-seemed suddenly unfamiliar because it appeared not in the Gloucester Times' daily record of fish landings, or in conversations one had along Main Street or the waterfront, but in a poem. In fact, I almost resented Olson's utilization of local slang in his poetry. I wondered if he wasn't trying to show off, to let his readers know he was an insider when I knew, or thought I knew, that he really wasn't. (Olson was born in Worcester, Mass., in 1910, first summering on Stage Fort Avenue in Gloucester with his family, until he and his mother moved here permanently in the mid-1930s.)
What began to dawn on me, however, was that Olson, who had been a letter carrier here, knew Gloucester very well. He knew the city better than I did. And he employed his intimate knowledge of Gloucester's houses, streets, neighborhoods and folkways better than I had begun to do in my tentative first stories about the place, stories I had hoped to collect for an English honors project in college but had ultimately abandoned because I didn't know how to tell them.
Even though I was pointed toward Italy during the summer after I graduated from Bowdoin, I was intensely aware of Olson's presence in Gloucester. Our mutual friends, the Paris-born, Yugoslavian painter Albert Alcalay and his wife Vera, talked much of Olson when I visited them in the house and studio on Rocky Neck Avenue they spent summers in with their two sons Leor and Ammiel. Albert encouraged me to read Olson's first book Call Me Ishmael, which had recently been re-printed by Barney Rosset as a Grove Press paperback.
"If you want to understand America you must read that book!" Albert insisted.
Setting aside Iris Origo's study of Leopardi and a brief history of Florence, I drove to Cambridge and bought Call Me Ishmael from Gordon Cairnie at his Grolier Book Shop on Plympton Street-this was in late August of 1959-and I read it during those morning hours that were mine before reporting to work for the night shift at Gorton's Seafood Center, where I packed frozen seafood fillets.
First published in 1947, Call Me Ishmael returned me to the intellectual preoccupations of that last year in college just as I was preparing for new ones in Europe. The book is about the sources of Melville's Moby-Dick in myth, in Greek tragedy, in Melville's deep immersion in Shakespeare, and in the American landscape and consciousness itself. It is not only the best introduction to Melville that I know, it is also a map of the territory Olson would later explore in The Maximus Poems, in which the history of Gloucester would be a microcosm of America's, and America's, of the world. Only months before I had been reading about Greek and Mesoamerican myth and ritual, as I tried to grapple with D. H. Lawrence's encounter with Mexico and the American Southwest for my senior thesis on The Plumed Serpent. I had been trying to understand the relationship between the new land and the savagery with which Europeans took possession of it, decimating and displacing its original inhabitants. I'd been trying, equally, to get at the American unconscious in which, I believed, that violence still resided.
Suddenly, reading Call Me Ishmael, it all came together for me, as Olson equated the space of the vast new country with the sense of violence that space had bred. "I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now," Olson wrote. "I spell it large because it comes large here. Large and without mercy. . . PLUS a harshness we still perpetuate, a sun like a tomahawk, small earthquakes but big tornadoes and hurrikans, a river north and south in the middle of the land running out the blood."
I could hardly contain myself as I read Olson's tensely visual prose, a prose that held my attention the way Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature had. In both books there was an immensely attractive, often mesmerizing, personal voice-Olson's inspired by Edward Dahlberg's, as Dahlberg had been inspired by Lawrence's. One morning, when I shared with Albert my excitement over Olson's book, he said, "Well, he's coming tonight and I don't want you to get too frightened when you see him because he's big."
That night — it must have been a Saturday or Sunday because I wasn't working on the wharf-I went early to Albert and Vera's so I wouldn't miss Olson's arrival. It was a late one, as I would learn; for Olson moved according to his own inner dictates. But I will never forget my first sight of Olson and his wife Betty Kaiser. Olson was simply enormous; he towered over small Europeans like Albert and me. Betty was beautiful. She was tall and slender and she wore a long, dark-patterned skirt. Her lustrous black hair was piled on top of her head and she had a Botticellian profile. Olson came in creased chinos and a blue Oxford cloth shirt peppered with cigarette burns. Around his shoulders he'd draped a gray Shetland sweater. On his feet were paint-stained work shoes.
It was a cool night in late August with a breeze off the water, so we sat inside Albert's ample studio with its view out over Smith Cove. Albert's marvelous abstract cityscapes hung on the walls and his book case held copies of art magazines and Botteghe Oscure, the great international literary review that was published in Rome by Marguerite Caetani. The scene was everything an aspiring writer would dream of. Vera's hospitality was extraordinary, and Charles and Betty made a handsome and gracious couple. They arrived as though attending what I imagined to be the fabulous art parties of Greenwich Village or the Hamptons. And Charles sat down, looked me full in the face, as he would do all during the years of our later friendship, and spoke to me of what he knew about me (a great deal, it turned out) and my family.
The major topic of conversation for the evening was not America or Gloucester; it was Europe, Italy in particular. Part of that was in my honor, for Albert had already told Charles of my plans to leave for the University of Florence, where I would be studying Dante and Romance Philology. So we spoke of Dante, about whose poetry Olson was immensely knowledgeable. But Olson also wanted to talk about his friend Corrado Cagli, the Roman painter he'd met in Washington. Through his experience of accompanying Allied army units as they opened up Buchenwald, Cagli had brought home the reality of the Holocaust to Olson; and that atrocity had been an animating factor both in his poetry and in his belief that the old humanism was dead, rendered obsolete by the multiple horrors of the war. At the end of the evening Olson took out a tiny notepad. With the stub of a pencil he wrote a letter of introduction for me to Cagli in Rome. It said in part, "Peter Anastas is the son of the man from whose store I made all my telephone calls."
The one subject I had wanted to discuss with Olson that night, my excitement over Call Me Ishmael, never came up. In the aura of Charles and Betty's magnetic presence, in the sweep of the conversation from Troubadour poetry to the paintings of Josef Albers, who had preceded Olson as rector of Black Mountain, I never had the chance to tell Charles about reading him.
That evening Olson invited me to visit him and Betty and I promised to do so. But I hesitated, and then it was time to leave for Europe. On the eve of my departure for Naples from Boston on the TSS Olympia, I slipped Call Me Ishmael into my suitcase. It was one of two books I was taking with me. The other was Sartre's Nausea. Little did I realize that those books would come to symbolize the two poles of an intellectual inheritance I would struggle with for many years.
I linger over my account of that first meeting with Charles because I myself came to invest it with a mythic dimension. The impact of Olson upon me that evening was such that I could have renounced my trip to Italy to remain at home in Gloucester learning from him the things I felt I'd never been taught in college, subjects that mattered to me more than anything else and that, it seemed, I was traveling vainly half way around the world to pursue. But I think Charles understood the conflict, having doubtlessly sensed my immediate admiration for him. It had happened with many a younger person, I imagined, a student or fledgling writer, who might have traveled to Black Mountain or Gloucester, attracted by Olson's charisma.
I also like to think that Olson wanted me to go to Europe, just as he had done as a young man between high school and college. Certainly he was encouraging that first night, as Vera and Albert, who taught me my first Italian, had always been. Olson must have known more than I did that I would need to discover my roots in the Mediterranean before I could understand myself as an American, indeed, before I could realize what having been born in Gloucester meant.
A year passed in Florence, as I've described, a year in which I had thrown myself into the study of Medieval literature and begun to teach English at a private high school. I spoke Italian daily, I wrote articles in Italian for local journals; I even dreamed in my new language. But one morning I woke up with Melville on my mind, for I had been reading Davide Lajolo's biography of Cesare Pavese, the great contemporary Italian novelist, who had translated Moby-Dick into Italian. Rushing over to the American Library in Via Tornabuoni, I signed Moby-Dick out. For three days I did nothing but read Melville; and then I sat down and wrote an essay about my nostalgia for the ocean and for Gloucester, which I immediately sent to Paul Kenyon, my former editor at the Gloucester Times. It was then that I remembered Call Me Ishmael. I dug the book out of my trunk and re-read it with new insight. Even though I would remain in Florence for nearly two more years, my journey homeward had begun.
As soon as I returned to Gloucester in the late spring of 1962, I sought Olson out, or rather, through Vincent Ferrini, he invited me to read at Gallery Seven in Magnolia from the manuscript of my novel, "From What Bone." Brother Antoninus, the featured poet, was unable to come, and Olson had been asked to organize an alternate program. Jonathan Bayliss, whom I met for the first time that night, read from his novel Prologos, which has only now been published. And John Keyes, a poet from New York City, later to be featured in Ed Sanders' Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts, read from his Olson-inspired long poem about Washington, D.C.
Of course, I read poorly; and the minute I began to read from my embarrassingly self-conscious first novel about a young Greek-American, who wavers over returning to his father's home town in the Peloponnese, as had been my own struggle, I knew the narrative wasn't working. Nevertheless, people were kind, and after the reading was over and I had re-met Charles at the reception, he took me aside. Again those searching eyes overwhelmed mine as he placed his large hand on my shoulder.
"The literal," he said, complimenting me on a door I had described in a Greek peasant's house, a door of peeling paint and rusty nails. "Not the literary." By this Olson meant that one need not embellish what one encountered in the world, imposing "meaning" upon what was already inherent. One need only describe it with exactitude for utmost effect, or as Williams Carlos Williams put it, "No ideas but in things."
Like much that Olson was later to teach me, it took me years to comprehend fully what he was getting at. But that advice has proved to be some of the most valuable I ever received, along with another remark of Olson's made in response to a complaint to him that I wasn't getting enough time to write.
"Just live," he said one hot summer afternoon, as we sat together across the street from the post office on Dale Avenue. "The writing will take care of itself."
Between the spring of 1962 and his death of cancer of the liver on January 10, 1970, I spent a great deal of time with Olson. Those were the years in which he completed the major phase of The Maximus Poems, the years in which he sent a series of stunning letters to the Editor of the Gloucester Times about how he felt Urban Renewal was destroying the city's historical and architectural heritage; years in which we both agonized over our country's involvement in Vietnam. They were also the years when his reputation as a poet, thinker, teacher, and explicator of his own works became international. He traveled to Italy, reading on the same platform with his old mentor Ezra Pound. He lived in London; he taught at Buffalo, where Betty was killed in an automobile accident. And finally, he returned to Gloucester, to complete the poems, describing in the last book of Maximus his loneliness in the apartment at 28 Fort Square after Betty died, his plunge into what he called the "subterranean lake" of himself in order to fathom his own depths, just as he had attempted to sound Melville's in Call Me Ishmael.
But mostly I remember the talk of those years. I recall the nights in his house when Vincent Ferrini, Jonathan Bayliss, and I would appear just after Charles and Betty had finished eating supper (it was breakfast for Charles, who worked all night, sleeping each day until late afternoon) and stay until one, two, three in the morning talking "in the Russian manner," as Olson characterized it, sitting over a bottle of whiskey until it and the topic had absolutely been exhausted. Or the nights when I was finally able to maintain my own friendship with Olson and I would go alone and talk sometimes with Charles until dawn, rushing home to record it all in my journal:
"January 23, 1966, 5 a.m. I come home exhausted after 10 hours with Charles. Impossible to keep up with him-he's a human dynamo. My head is full of the sound of his voice; my hands smell of him; my clothes are permeated with the smoke of his cigarettes, and my body aches, not to mention my brain, after our non-stop talking. . . Who would have anything to do with any university after such a day? Years from now when he's dead and I am past the wasting of my first twenty-five years, I'll recall these evenings and regret that I had so little to give Charles, that I was so exhausted, so literally speechless in the face of his mind.
"And of Betty, who lies now under the earth in West Gloucester, Charles says so lovingly, 'I still don't believe that Bet is dead. She's just lost out there somewhere. I expect her to come knocking on the door any day. . ."
The last time I saw Charles was mid-September of 1969. He dropped in on us at Vine Street on his way back from undergoing a series of tests at the hospital. He'd been sick that summer, and quite exhausted after trips to England and Germany. Vincent Ferrini and I had gone to visit him at Addison Gilbert, where we found him in bed out in the corridor because they had no room for him. He was wrapped in a big blue and white Indian patterned robe, his hair, now all white, in a pony tail. Vincent remarked that he looked like an old Abenaki woman, and Charles said, "I am an old Abenaki!" Ever the historian, he was reading Truman Nelson's The Right of Revolution, marveling at Truman's grasp of American history and the revolutionary implications of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Charles never disclosed what was wrong with him or why he'd been admitted to the hospital.
His visit to Vine Street occurred just before Charles left for Connecticut, where he would be teaching at the university in Storrs. He announced that he'd come to pay his respects to our new twins, Benjamin and Rhea, who'd been born that spring and were lying in their playpen prior to a nap. Charles was very much interested in this double birth, calling my wife during her pregnancy to inquire after her health (it wasn't until years later I learned that Olson had an older brother who died at birth). In any event, he drove up our driveway in his battered green and white 1957 Chevrolet station wagon. While Jeane was preparing lunch, he walked me all over the Riggs family land that surrounded our rented farm house, indicating to me a set of grooves made by the iron wheels of ancient ox carts that for decades had been driven up through the lower front yard before the city created Riggs Point Road. He recounted for me the history of the Riggs house, peeling back the centuries, as we circled the gambrel style dwelling that had originally been built in 1658.
We sat on the screened front porch of the old house, a 19th century excrescence, which my landlord was soon to remove. It was a beautiful clear, early fall day. My four-year-old son, Jonathan, was out in the yard playing. He liked to call the field that abutted the house his "farm." Close to the Old Riggs House, which was next door to ours, was a thick copse of lilac trees, which Jonathan would often hide in. Jonathan showed Charles the "lilac house," as he'd named it, while Olson leaned over, peeking in among the boughs. Of course, to Jonathan, Charles was a giant, come to life from the pages of his fairy tale books.
And then we came in for lunch. I noticed that Charles seemed to stoop more than usual, although he always had to bend down to get through most normal doorways. Jeane had laid out pickled herring and sour cream with pumpernickel bread, and chilled cucumber slices that had been pressed flat in white vinegar and garnished with dill from our garden. She'd also made a pitcher of fresh lemonade flavored by mint leaves she found growing around the Old Riggs House. After she put the twins down for their nap, we talked over lunch. It was a typical conversation. Charles would immediately share with you his current absorption. On this occasion it was Atlantis, about which he'd been reading in a paper by Spiridon Marinatos, a Greek archaeologist, who'd done some recent excavations with James Mavor on the island of Thera. Their discoveries pointed to important links between Santorini, long thought to be the original site of the ancient sunken city of Atlantis, and Minoan culture, which Olson had immersed himself in for years. Olson had immediately called Mavor at Woods Hole and he reported their conversation to us excitedly.
What I remember most, though, was our talk on the porch of the Old Riggs House just before lunch. We sat there by ourselves, just Charles and me, while Jonathan played in the yard. Charles had on an old pair of chinos and some big blue canvas sneakers such as he might have worn in college. He hadn't shaved that day and his hair was tied in a bun at the back of his head; and always there was a sweater wrapped around his neck and shoulders even though the afternoon was warm. It seemed to me that we were in a very equitable place as we talked. After years of such talks, about everything from James Joyce to John F. Kennedy, I no longer felt like a disciple and he didn't act like a master. I was me and he was Charles, or at least it seemed that way, as we quietly shared some talk about our individual work and Charles filled me in on his latest researches into Linear B inscriptions found on Cretan-Mycenaean clay tablets, whose inventories fascinated him in much the same way the lists of family possessions in colonial probate documents absorbed his interest, eventually entering his poems.
After lunch Charles said goodbye. A day later he left for Storrs. At Thanksgiving we heard he was sick again. Vincent went to New York to visit him at University Hospital, where his friend and former student, Harvey Brown, had taken Charles after he'd been diagnosed in Connecticut with cancer of the liver. Through Vincent Charles sent Jeane and me a note in shaky pencil on one of the Buffalo Further Studies pamphlets containing an essay by him on the World-Tree. "This last one to bring up with our STUFF," he'd written. By then we knew he was dying.
I helped carry Charles to his grave, just as I had done with Betty after she died and her body was brought home to Gloucester to be buried at Beechbrook Cemetery. As I stand by the slate headstone which marks their graves today, I often recall that evening at Albert and Vera's when I first met them both. I recall how they seemed my ideal of a couple, and Charles, the very picture of the kind of writer that I wished to become myself. Whoever would have thought on that late summer night nearly fifty years ago that I would have buried them both and that, along with Charles and Betty, would go my own youth, and much of my idealism, in those terrible years of the war in Vietnam and its aftermath?