Harp & Altar
Lisa Jarnot
from Robert Duncan: The Ambassador from Venus
Caesar's Gate

Michael Newton

Jared White

Michael Zeiss

Caesar's Gate
Lisa Jarnot

Summer verano summer verano summer verano.

Using words from what we heard.

A little frog is a rano pequeno.

—Robert Duncan, “Another ido”


On June 26, home from their Barcelona excursion, Duncan reported to Ida Hodes that he and Jess had acquired two overactive Mallorcan kittens, Billy and Jeoffry, offspring of a black cat owned by the Creeleys. Hodes, who had been doting over Jess and Duncan’s other black cat Princess, responded with several letters regarding cat activities in San Francisco, including Princess’s trauma of a trip to the veterinarian after swallowing a long piece of string. Relieved that Princess had survived the ordeal, Duncan turned his focus toward the composition of a small book called Ballads for Helen Adam, which he soon abandoned for another project, Caesar’s Gate. The limited edition book came into print courtesy of Creeley’s Divers Press in the fall of the year. It included poems Duncan had written between 1949 and 1950, a series of collages by Jess, and another layer of poems composed in the process of the collaboration. Energized by the project, Duncan told Helen Adam:


The marvelous outcome is a bit of home magic. For the thirteen collages are to be a book, dispersed like the leaves of a book among thirteen holders. Once it leaves my pen and Jess’s scissors and paste-pot it will come into being as it falls apart. I shall keep no copies of the poems any more than Jess can keep a copy of his collages. But the numberd copies of the edition will give the sequence of the scenes. This whole mystery has made for a most excited period of work. Indeed, I have written with the sense that I too in writing am about a hidden other work that must go like seeds from the pod of the whole where it is wanted. These special collages are in color which will set grandly in the volume. At this point I live in a way to see the book at last from the press and in my hands.1


                Duncan’s reading practices that summer also began to take the form of a collage-style amusement. It had become his habit to draw what he needed from a text, sometimes at random, and to move on to the next adventure.2 His mid-summer Mallorcan notebooks gave ample evidence of that instinct. Filled with notes from the multi-volume kabbalistic Zohar, and from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, his other scholarly explorations were documented in reading lists:


George MacDonald Lilith, H.D. By Avon River, Shakespeare Troilus and Cressida, Dodds The Greeks and the Irrational, Emerson On Dreams, Freud Civilization and Its Discontents, Cassirer Essay on Man, Laura Riding A Progress of Stories, Blake Songs of Innocence and Experience, Bergson Creative Evolution, Sapir Language, Nijinsky Diary, Ibsen Peer Gynt, Jane Harrison Themis, Dorothy Richardson Pilgrimage.3


Sifting through the material at hand, he arrived at insights about his own process as a writer, confiding in Helen Adam:


This “romantic” view that poetry comes by an inspiration, a visiting genius that may return or no—is a part-truth anyway. Another part-truth is that poetry is a practice, a love: and that one’s own love for the language, one’s own ardor ebbs and flows. It has seemd to me—this word “practice” (which Charles Olson used in a letter to me recently) calls up the sense that just as one practices the arts of magic or medicine; so in poetry one practices life. Then there is another life—not just that poetry refers to it but that poetry is the practice of it. One of the ways of coming alive. Surely it would be wonderful enough if what Christ meant when he said “I am the Resurrection and the Life” were just this—this coming alive. Which we are all calld to by so many things: by cats, by the light in a window seat, by the disturbance of distances in views of the city, by moments of friendship.4


Interspersed with Duncan and Jess’s creative reveries that summer came a more conflicted aspect of the stay in Mallorca. While back in the United States, President Eisenhower was trying to make some sense of Nikita Khrushchev’s government by deploying U-2 spy planes over the Soviet Union, Duncan and Jess were likewise watching the activities in the Creeley household from a distance. A Black Mountain College student named Victor Kalos visited Mallorca in June and engaged in a flirtation with Ann Creeley that culminated in an affair. Duncan meanwhile noted in a journal:


It becomes clear . . . with Kalos that we are in an untenable position in extending our hospitality. And I want the fortitude to practice the abruptness needed and long overdue. To announce as Stein had the character to do that she rescinded her invitation. As Pound was turned away after having been invited to dinner.5


Another brief uninspiring connection came in a meeting with Robert Graves that summer. Robert Creeley later recalled the event in a nostalgic letter to Duncan after a subsequent encounter with Graves during the 1960s,


I thought of ourselves back in Mallorca, that time you and I went up to see him [Graves]— and you asked about Laura Riding, and also what he was reading—and G[raves] answered that he found very little of interest, to which I remember you saying, “oh I find a lot, in fact anything that’s written.”6


When Kenneth Anger arrived in Mallorca from Paris on July 10, Duncan and Jess were happy to have familiar company. That same day, Creeley departed for the United States, leaving his wife and children behind. Duncan limited his contact with Ann Creeley after her husband’s departure, replacing that turmoil with the less complicated community afforded by Anger’s visit. Sketching a scene of the mid-summer household in a letter to Helen Adam, he again made clear the pleasures that Europe provided:


In the dark of night there is no breeze. Great moths flutter about our light and a chorus of cricket, mosquito and beetle has replaced the lusty orchestra of frogs of May and June. On such a night, haunted by the supernatural oppression of the weather—we talk of Dracula, of cat and wolf ghosts, of the dead in Homer lapping at the blood-filled fosse. I read the strange section from Smart’s Jubilate Agno about man’s regaining his horns—ending “God be gracious this day to bees and beeves—” it is just such an evening for contemplation of the cauld that now by lamplight (electricity goes off on Saturdays at midnight) while Jess lays out cards for a game of solitaire I take up my pen to converse with you for a while.7


Throughout July, Duncan was also eager to see Caesar’s Gate into print, and rallied Ida Hodes, Helen Adam, and Denise Levertov to gather American subscribers to pay for the production of the book. Jess was equally engaged, turning out a large number of art works between swimming sessions, sunbathing, and cooking Spanish curries. As of mid-September, he had completed twenty-eight oil paintings, including Electric Powerhouse in Banalbufar and The Nasturtium That Dissolved the World (Imaginary Portrait #13: Denise Levertov).8

                With Kenneth Anger in tow, the couple had another opportunity to visit Barcelona in early August. Composing detailed letters to Charles Olson and Denise Levertov about his finds, Duncan shared with Olson his assessment of “the Catalan romanesque frescos and sculptures,” from which he moved toward a deeper evaluation of the relationships between poetry, history, and architecture:


. . . the epiphany (mine) is that just here a complex iconography (where all images are signs) is brought into a complex plastic knowledge (where the two dimensions of the fresco, and the symbolic many dimensions of what is represented, and the three dimensions of the architecture—the apse is semicircular—provide spatial counterpoints with the advancing and recedings of forms and colors). You see at a glance a created space, which being drawn, draws. And—the exhilaration of the maker is so keen—see the created time of a poem and that as the plastic feeling be complex there, then needs—for this exhilaration—a like wise complex iconography. Wherever the spatial knowledge does not exist, the iconography does not exist.9


In correspondence with Levertov he returned to another question regarding his poetics, spurred by his readings of Darwin:


What if poetry were not some realm of personal accomplishment, open field day race for critics to judge, or animal breeding show— . . . but a record of what we are, like the record of what the earth is is left in the rocks left in the language? Then what do we know of poetry at all compared to this geology? and how silly we must look criticizing . . . as if geologists were to criticize rather than read their remains.10


Letters between Duncan and his Black Mountain colleagues served as a foundation upon which he could voice his ideas and receive responses that challenged his thinking about poetry. On another front, important literary connections were being established by younger writers in San Francisco. In August of 1955, Allen Ginsberg met Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who had founded City Lights bookstore two years earlier, a venue that became one of the havens for the poets of the San Francisco Renaissance. Ferlinghetti was soon to be the publisher of Ginsberg’s collection of poems Howl, and that fall, on Friday October 7, 1955, Ginsberg read the title poem of the collection at the Six Gallery to an audience that included Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and Kenneth Rexroth. A postcard advertisement for the reading, written by Ginsberg, read in part: “. . . all sharp new straightforward writing—remarkable collection of angels on one stage reading their poetry. No charge, small collection for wine and postcards. Charming event.”11

                Neither Jack Spicer nor Duncan was in town for the reading that marked the beginning of the San Francisco Renaissance. Spicer had been in New York that autumn, and in late October, he was en route to Boston to visit another recent East Coast transplant, Robin Blaser. Duncan and Jess were meanwhile making plans to visit Paris, but the importance of the Six Gallery reading was not lost on Duncan. He reflected later to Robin Blaser: “Well, Ginsberg’s HOWL is the San Francisco poem of all poems for 1955-6. When we were in Majorca everybody from San Francisco writing was affected by it.”12 Events at the Poetry Center also contributed to a growing intensity in the San Francisco poetry scene, and as Ida Hodes reported to Jess and Duncan:


The Poetry Center readings at the Telegraph Hill Community House have been tremendously attended. Rexroth read last Sunday to an overflow crowd—much over a hundred people, and sold books too, and did well. He read from the translations of 100 Japanese Poems, and the Spanish Exile Poems, and then from the Bestiary which was delightful. City Lights is featuring Rexroth this week, a full window. Previously they did a window on Henry Miller, and very effective.13


                On November 4, 1955, Duncan and Jess left Spain from a port in Barcelona. With a gift of two hundred dollars from Duncan’s mother, the couple set off for France and England, making their way first to Paris to celebrate James Broughton's birthday. Paris was a delight for both men, and as Duncan wrote to Mary Tyler from an apartment on the Rue du Chateau in the 14th arrondissement:


The traffic speeds along the great avenues, and cafes are busy with talk—one can find good talkers to compete with, the kind one even stops to listen to; the food is extraordinary (and we have not been able to have but one swank meal—that was a birthday party Jimmy Broughton gave) . . . .14


Absorbing the sights, the two made their way through the Luxembourg Gardens, the museums, and the neighborhoods along the Seine. It was a first opportunity for Duncan to see one of the European centers crucial to his studies of Medieval history, and he told Ida Hodes in a late November letter that he had become aware of a compelling aspect of the city:


. . . Paris devours itself—it is not just that the city is self-centerd but that it is ghoul haunted. If we ever wonderd why Poe with his ghoul haunted weirds seemd so very great to Baudelaire, or if we were to wonder now why Lovecraft is translated and admired here; it is because this city rests upon its cemeteries. And bookshops are filld with books of or on the dead, whether they be memorials of the great or be . . . books on the occult, on necromancy, or on dead empires.15


The stay in Paris also gave Duncan and Jess the opportunity to meet New Yorker Paul Blackburn and his wife Winifred. Blackburn, a translator and poet, was in Europe on a Fulbright scholarship, studying at the University of Toulouse. Duncan had read his work in the Black Mountain Review earlier in the year and was eager to make his acquaintance. After celebrating New Years Eve with Blackburn and his wife, Duncan and Jess began the final leg of their yearlong exploration of Europe, on January 4 traveling north to London.


1 to Helen Adam, 26 Aug 1955.

2 Berkeley friend Hilde Burton speculated, “I doubt he finished any book—a month later he had integrated it. It was as if it had become his.” [Hilde Burton, personal interview, 18 Feb 2006.] Duncan’s reading notes in notebooks do show a focus on his study of the opening chapters of books rather than the books as a whole.

3 Notebook 15, ND [June 1955], SUNY at Buffalo.

4 to Helen Adam, 17 Sept 1955.

5 Notebook 15, ND [June 1955], SUNY at Buffalo. Duncan’s feelings regarding Robert and Ann Creeley’s relationship are recorded in Ekbert Faas’s Robert Creeley: A Biography, The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, and in Duncan’s unpublished letters to Robert Creeley, housed at Stanford University. Gertrude Stein, who once referred to Ezra Pound derisively as “the village explainer,” discontinued her association with Pound after he broke a chair during one of his visits to her.

6 from Robert Creeley, 4 Apr 1965.

7 to Helen Adam, 20 Aug 1955.

8 Reproductions of both of these paintings appear in Christopher Wagstaff’s catalogue Lyn Brockway, Harry Jacobus, and Jess: The Romantic Paintings.

9 to Charles Olson, 14 Aug 1955, Jacket 28, http://jacketmagazine.com/28/dunc-bert-10letters.html#fnx6

10 to Denise Levertov, ND [late Nov 1955].

11 The Beat Generation Galleries and Beyond, 76. Other readers who appeared beside Ginsberg on the night of the Six Gallery Reading were Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder. Kenneth Rexroth served as the Master of Ceremonies.

12 to Robin Blaser, 18 June 1957.

13 Ida Hodes to Duncan and Jess, 16 Dec 1955.

14 to Mary Tyler, 27 Nov 1955.

15 to Ida Hodes, 29 Nov 1955. Duncan took up the theme of the dead and the study of French in his final collection of poems, Ground Work II.