June 2013

Patrick James Dunagan

nonfiction

Black Mountain Days by Michael Rumaker

Black Mountain Days, Michael Rumaker's memoir of his student years at Black Mountain College is quintessential first-person storytelling. This is not a rigorous, fact-based account, but an extremely fluid, quite personal retelling of who did what when, based on Rumaker's own recollection. He acknowledges "psychological truth" as the foundation for his endeavor to tell the tale of his college years. Autobiographical to the core, Rumaker's book offers much that only tangentially relates to the history of the school itself yet is nonetheless a unique chronicle of the final years of a vital institution to mid-twentieth century American arts.

At the time of its existence (1933-1957), Black Mountain College offered a one-of-a-kind opportunity for any free-spirited, artistic-oriented student. There was no other place like it. The arts, in broadest of terms, served as the core of the curriculum. An adherence to principles set forth by German Bauhaus was only further affirmed under Rector Josef Albers in the 1940s. By the 1950s, however, poet Charles Olson had taken the helm and the school was quite literally falling apart. Nevertheless, the Olson years saw a tremendous burst of activity which contributed to setting much of the tone of American arts and letters for coming decades -- particularly among nonconformist artists and writers existing at the fringes of official academe and more often than not against traditional mores of conventional society.

In the 1950s, as a young, sensitive homosexual from a working class Philadelphia family with immigrant roots (an Irish-English mother and Lithuanian-Polish father) and a burgeoning interest in painting and writing, Rumaker self-identified as an outcast. Before he made his way to Black Mountain, his life situation was anything but promising for achieving even a measure of his true inclinations: "When I was 18, my father, with my mother's silent assent, had kicked me out of the house for not going to church and for being queer; I moved to a $7 a week room in Philly in the then semi-redlight district behind Independence Hall and worked in a factory." His years at Black Mountain proved seminal to his development as a serious, committed writer and open homosexual. Black Mountain Days chronicles Rumaker's educational ups and downs alongside his emotional highs and lows. He finds and loses lovers while progressively realizing himself as an artist.

As poet Charles Olson is the predominant figure of interest in Rumaker's memoir, it's quite fitting that a photo of him in the dining hall porch eating area at Black Mountain with his daughter Kate on his lap adorns the cover. Olson serves as prime bogey for Rumaker's complex confusion over his own compulsive anxieties concerning his father, sexuality, and his impulses towards writing. His desire to have Olson's recognition on all these fronts is constant. His closeness of feeling and avid interest in Olson's own emotional state during these years at Black Mountain (Olson left his first wife Connie after impregnating student Betty Kaiser, with whom he then set up a household at the school) yields insight into the older poet's own character. Rumaker's friendship with both of Olson's wives and the general everybody-knows-everything-about-everybody atmosphere around the isolated campus of Black Mountain make it impossible for the ooze of gossip not to exude from these pages.

The details are at times a bit uncomfortable to read, as when Rumaker recalls Olson's initial middle of the night visits to Betty's room, which happened to be directly above his own, and the sounds of sexual intercourse that could be quite distinctly heard. At first, he's playfully imagining the newspaper headlines of his death caused by Olson (a solidly built barrel-chested 6'8") crashing through the ceiling above: "STUDENT KILLED BY AMOROUS TEACHER or VICTIM CRUSHED BY FALLING LOVENEST." Yet when he continues his imagining of the scenario transpiring above, his relish for the decorative analogy extends a bit further than seems called for. Although the embellished campiness does undeniably delight: "I also envisioned, cringing a little in misplaced empathy, Betty, skinnier even than myself, her slight body being flattened under the venusian steamroller energy of Charles' girth: a single rosebud supporting the burden of the entire bush, so to speak."

Rumaker's allegiance to Olson is complete and utter. He hangs upon every word. Olson is The Master but he's also recognizably human with faults. Acknowledging the vanity often on display, one anecdote relates Olson's commenting on "how 'so many geniuses have large heads,' his own head sitting enormous on his own broad shoulders." Olson's classes are infamous, being the stuff of legend among poetry aficionados. Rumaker joins in the chorus, "Charles, expansive, garrulous, all over the lot, did most of the talking. Listening to him was like riding a magic carpet anywhere in the imagination or the world... or the universe, for that matter." Olson offered his students an up-close, personal specimen of a poet's mind at work. He taught by way of example. Oracular and broadly reaching after anecdotes from his life and books read, constantly drawing from immediate experience, whether his own or that of others. Rumaker remembers "Olson speaking about Isadora Duncan and her autobiography, My Life, in class one night":

He told us how earlier in the book, he was most impressed with her walking on a beach by the ocean, alone, pregnant, torn between love, motherhood, her art, agonizing over whether to keep the child or not.

His sympathetic account took me to the library to read the books, to introduce me to a singular and innovative woman, another of the ghost-dancers, perhaps, among Charles's words, he spoke that movingly of her.

Rumaker's recollections do not save Olson from the numerous other previous accounts in which he is categorized as sexist, chauvinist and macho. That's all here too, in plenty. Nonetheless, it's evident that Olson's teaching did at least sometimes get beyond his shortcomings, demonstrating the ability of the poet in him to admire and learn from the struggles of others. This ability he actively sought to foster in his students.

Not surprisingly, this side of the poet in Olson drew Rumaker and other students, such as the young poet John Wieners, to so closely rally around him at Black Mountain, taking up writing as their own life discipline. However no matter how special a time and place Black Mountain may have been, Rumaker's tale is full of reminders that despite it all the world beyond still closes in. Like Olson himself at times, his students did not always succeed in transcending societal limitations to live sympathetically relating to others from the ideal poet perspective. One night out drinking beers with fellow student, the poet Ed Dorn and his wife Helene, both Rumaker and Wieners were "taken with the Dorns":

So taken, that... John and I haltingly shared some aspects of our lives, of what it was like to be gay, sharing, in a most risky time, even at Black Mountain, that inmost aspect of self with the two people we so very much admired and trusted. But to my dismay -- I can't speak for John, but I sensed the incomprehension in his eyes -- Ed said, and Helene, though with a hint of empathy in her own eyes, backed him up on it, saying it in the most charming, the most reasonable manner, however, "That's something we don't understand anything about," the tone in his voice, for all its surface friendliness, implying that it was something they didn't want to understand either, that it didn't touch their lives in any way, and there were no questions asked... Dorn's wasn't, of course, an uncommon attitude at the time (he later expressed his underlying hostility in the 1959 poem "When the Fairies" which editor Don Allen included in his New American Poetry 1945-60).... I had thought, naively, perhaps as John did, too, that I could trust them to see, but after an awkward moment of the silence that murders, the conversation moved on to other things.

It's in such passages as this one that the value of Rumaker's writing shines. How painstakingly clear he is concerning such personal weaknesses and flaws, still heavily prevalent to this day. Of course, Rumaker may be missing the fact that the Dorns likely felt too closely what it is to be excluded. Their refusal to "understand" the difficulties of gay life perhaps stemming from their own sense of class and social strife they encountered due to the circumstances of their married life. After all, Helene had been married with a son when Dorn met her and they had commenced an extremely peripatetic lifestyle together, scraping by as they crisscrossed the country at a time when divorce was quite rare and much scorned. On the other hand, Dorn's poem certainly doesn't allow much room for mistaking his position (i.e., "When the fairies fly back to Santa Fe / coming in on their smelly little wings").

Black Mountain Days only grows better with distance in historical time from the events recounted. Rumaker is perhaps surprisingly emerging as one of the best chroniclers of the past era. Though social movements of intervening decades continue to open up American society beyond the restrictions he was forced traverse, his writing provides the rare opportunity to gain an intimacy for the lived experience. This is a big book. There's much more offered on a wide cast of characters. Thankfully there is an index compiled by Leverett T. Smith to guide the reader towards passages concerning "various teachers, students, and visitors to Black Mountain College." This is indispensable. It allows a quick purview of Rumaker's witnessing to aspects of the lives of other key players such as poet Robert Creeley looking the part of "Spanish assassin," desperate in his teaching, at the end of his first marriage, searching for the ground to carry on.

Ever idiosyncratic, Rumaker's writing hinges on testament. He's aware that "there are for any past occurrence as many takes on it as points on a circle." There's repetition as some stories get told more than once, since they encroach upon his memory from differing angles. But the feeling is inescapable that nearly everything of value about Black Mountain from the final years under Olson is related here. There's lots and lots of drinking, revelations of sexual partners, the car crash into the chimney that could have ended a few lives, parties, performances -- it's all brought to life again and passed on. For Rumaker, and the other artists who found their way to Black Mountain in those years, the final end was when "the hour had finally come, unaware to us, that the varied and multiple shapes and ideas and perceptions spawned at Black Mountain over its last years were ready to be scattered out into the world, after a painfully protracted and overdue birth." Left behind is the evidence of what is possible for an educational environment and the fostering of fresh visions to attempt newly imagined scenarios.

Black Mountain Days by Michael Rumaker
Spuyten Duyvil
ISBN: 978-1933132662
658 pages