March 2012

Josh Anderson


The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard edited by Ron Padgett

I remember reading I Remember on a spring day. I was riding on the subway and glanced around to see several passengers scanning celebrity gossip rags, and I thought how much more open to each other they'd all be if they read Joe Brainard instead. I knew then it was a book I'd thrust on friends, strangers even, because Brainard himself comes off as a close companion and his writings like secrets shared since grade school. It's such a gift that the esteemed Library of America has put out his Collected Writings, as all of it is full of otherworldly intimacies.

Known first and foremost as a visual artist, Brainard, through a steady production of poems, journals, fiction, memoir, collages, and comic strips, also became a notable writer in the conversational tradition of American letters, which includes a polyphony of voices as diverse as Mark Twain, William Carlos Williams, Frank O'Hara (a friend and acknowledged influence), Pauline Kael, Thomas Merton, and Paul Goodman. Brainard's distinct strain can best be heard in I Remember, the new collection's centerpiece -- a book so deceptively simple, so unaffected, as to appear childish. And it is, or boyish, rather. Seemingly without structure, and with no concern to chronology, it's made up entirely of statements beginning with "I remember." These are not recollections so much as they are daydreams: "I remember deciding at a certain point that I would cut through all the bullshit and just go up to boys I liked and say, "Do you want to go home with me?" and so I tried it. But it didn't work. Except once. And he was drunk. The next morning he left a card behind with a picture of Jesus on it signed 'with love, Jesus' on the back. He said he was a friend of Allen Ginsberg."

Then again, memories get mixed up with fantasies and fantasies with memories in life, most especially in youth, and his writing reflects the whimsicality of all of our early years.

Sweet like a well-behaved boy he may be, but Brainard doesn't shirk the lonely, melancholic, pathetic. "I remember eating alone in restaurants a lot because of some sort of perverse pleasure I don't want to think about right now. (Because I still do it)," he recalls. And "I remember not liking myself for not picking up boys I probably could pick up because of the possibility of being rejected." Also, "I remember looking at myself in a mirror and becoming a total stranger." These might be the confessions of an acquaintance we hardly know: though the effusions turn us off at first, it isn't long before we're in love with a personality so unencumbered by personality. (Brainard, thinking the project a lark, was himself egged on to turn it into a book by his friend James Schuyler.) Sure, complete honesty can be off-putting; let's not forget it can be enchanting, too: "I remember early sexual experiences and rubbery knees. I'm sure sex is much better now but I do miss rubbery knees." Past leads to present leads back to past in a sugary, savory rush.

Whereas Brainard lost any drive to produce and display work publicly in his later life, he had by then fulfilled the great ambition of his career. He wanted to be as tender and emotionally available as possible while not getting lost in himself, as he makes clear in a diary entry from Sunday, May 4, 1969: "I feel very much on the verge (at last) of being a little more free of myself. But not quite. I mean like, more open, less nervous, and more human. More vulnerable. It may be a perverse thing to want, but that's what I want. I want to be more vulnerable. Frank O'Hara. I think often the way Frank O'Hara was. If I have a hero (I do) it is Frank O'Hara." Already by 1971 he'd blossomed in his self-forgetting, concluding his Bolinas Journal with an erasure: "My idea of how to leave a place gracefully is to 'disappear.'" Still, his wounded warble remains. In "What I Did This Summer" he notes how "we just keep learning the same fucking things over and over again." We do, in fact, find him fretting over the same sexual frustrations, the same heartaches, the same epiphanies -- never giving up. 

Brainard understands the only way to get through the daily grind is to take as much pleasure from wherever we can find it: in pop songs and dance crazes, in movies and soda, in first encounters and last, in orgasms and farts, in relationships and one-night-stands, in beginnings and endings, in the miserable days and glorious nights. We might also learn from Brainard's work to be more forgiving of each other's faults and quicker to acknowledge our own. I was too judgmental on the train. An unprovoked smile from a fellow straphanger should be enough. It's what I'll try to remember, at least.

The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard edited by Ron Padgett, with an introduction by Paul Auster
Library of America
ISBN: 978-1598531497
450 pages