Charles Olson in Gloucester
by Peter Anastas
This memoir was published in Larcom Review, Spring / Summer 1999 and reprinted in Minutes of the Charles Olson Society # 47/48 (November 2002).
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 hed stop and chat with her in front of the Boulevard Sweet Shop, my fathers 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 didnt 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 Olsons great height that stayed with one, and the fact that when he was an undergraduate at Wesleyan — or maybe later at Harvard, where hed 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 F.D.R., and Olson, who would soon be on his way to Washington to work at the Office for War Information and subsequently for the Democratic Party, appeared happy to talk politics with Dad. Oh, he could argue, Dad said. Sometimes hed give it to anyone at the counter who didnt agree with him.
Not to speak of the phone calls. Dad said that Charles kept him in the store long after closing hours. Hed 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 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 Ferrinis Four Winds, beginning in 1951, when I was in high school. But the poems in that groundbreaking little magazine that most affected me were by Ferrini himself, Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov. I dont think I was ready for Olsons obliquities or for his unrelenting localism, even though I had walked the terrain of those poems daily.
I wasnt 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 New Critical verse of the 1950s — dense, hermetic, traditional. 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 Parkers Scrip ink. In the foreground was 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 a 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 jibed with Vincent Ferrinis remark the previous summer that Charles was back in town and that 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 Olsons moving 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 difficult for me to follow. I could handle such juxtapositions in Pound. They would generally involve classical allusions, or Id recognize some lines or a simile from Dantes Commedia that would make sense. Nevertheless, Olson was using the details of daily life in Gloucester in a way Id 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 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 Olsons use of local slang in a poem. I wondered if he wasnt trying to show off, to let his readers know he was an insider when I knew, or thought I knew, that he really wasnt. (Olson was born in Worcester, Mass., first summering 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 knew Gloucester quite well. He knew the city better than I did. Or at least he used what he knew about Gloucester 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 didnt 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 Olsons presence in Gloucester. Our mutual friend 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. Albert encouraged me to read Olsons 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 books on Leopardi and Florentine history, I drove to Cambridge and bought Call Me Ishmael at the 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 Gortons Seafood Center.
First published in 1947, Call Me Ishmael returned me to the intellectual preoccupations of my final year in college just as I was prepared to abandon them for new ones in Europe. The book is about the sources of Melvilles Moby-Dick in myth, in Greek tragedy, in Melvilles 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 Americas, and Americas, 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. Lawrences 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. Id 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 Olsons idiosyncratic prose, a prose that gripped me the way Lawrences Studies in Classic American Literature had. One morning, when I shared with Albert my excitement over Olsons book, he said, Well, hes coming tonight and I dont want you to get too frightened when you see him because hes big.
That night — it must have been a Saturday or Sunday because I wasnt working — I went early to Albert and Veras so I wouldnt miss Olsons arrival. It was a late one, as I would learn; for Olson moved according to his own inner dictates. But I win never forget my first sight of Olson and his wife Betty. 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 hed 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 Alberts ample studio with its view out over Smith Cove. Alberts marvelous abstract paintings 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 like myself 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 hed 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. 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 Bettys 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 Sartres Nausea. Little did I realize that those books would come to symbolize the two poles of an intellectual inheritance I would struggle with for the rest of my life.
I linger over my account of that first meeting with Olson 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 that I had never been taught in college, the things 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 dynamic. It had happened for him with many a younger person, a student or fledgling writer, who might have traveled to Black Mountain or Gloucester attracted by Olsons charisma, even though he or she had never set eyes, as I had fortunately, on the man himself.
I like to think that Olson wanted me to go to Europe. Certainly he was encouraging that first night, as Vera and Albert, who had 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, 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 a 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 checked 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, editor of 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 was to 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 a novel I was just then completing. Brother Antoninus, the featured poet, was unable to come, and Olson had been asked to organize an alternate program. Jonathan Bayliss, a writer then employed as a business analyst at Gortons, read from his novel Prologos, which is only now being 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 Greek-American writer who returns to his fathers home town in the Peloponnese, I knew the narrative wasnt working. But 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 peasants house, a door of peeling paint and rusty nails. Not the literary. 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 Olsons made in response to a complaint to him that I wasnt getting enough time to write.
Just live, he said one hot summer afternoon as we sat 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 citys historical and architectural heritage; years in which we both agonized over our countrys 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 to try to fathom his own depths, just as he had attempted to sound Melvilles 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 — hes 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 that assault. . . Who would have anything to do with any university after such a day? Years from now when hes dead and I am past the wasting of my first twenty-five years, Ill 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 dont believe that Bet is dead. Shes just lost out there somewhere. I expect her to come knocking on the door any day. . .
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 that marks their graves today, I often recall that evening at Albert and Veras 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 forty 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?
Peter Anastas is the editor of Maximus to Gloucester: The Letters and Poems of Charles Olson to the Editor of the Gloucester Daily Times, 1962-1969 and author of, most recently, the novel No Fortunes (http://www.backshorepress.com).