An Ed Dorn In the Side
How did I become Ed
Dorn’s driver for a weekend in London in the late 1970s, shuttling him around
in my battered Beetle? Jim Mays was the serious aficionado, but he was too
sensibly English to introduce himself to the author of Gunslinger after
the reading at the Poetry Society. ‘What could three gawping fans communicate
in the circumstances’, he said. Jim’s family discourse was filtered through Slinger
quotes. ‘Don’t attempt to burden me with your encouragement’, ‘Fresh
distortions have reached my ears’, ‘This liquid is the last dwindling impulse
of the sun’, ‘I study the savage mind’.
There was a taxi strike, and I, the bold Fenian lad, stepped in and offered my services. Ed Dorn sat in the back, chin on my shoulder when giving directions. I was proud the way I negotiated London traffic, slipping in and out of side-streets to avoid jams. The only literary praise I have received that I truly cherish, was, after a poetry reading in Limerick driving home to Cork a rather nervous student, she blurted out, ‘You’re a very good driver for a poet’. I didn’t tell Ed that.
Dorn was a Black Mountain Beat poet who grew into a chronicler and counsellor of America and the world it threw a shadow over. His broadsheets Bean News and Sniper Logic were the alternative Time Magazine in the last three decades of the twentieth century. He looked like Gregory Peck’s Captain Ahab, deformities on the back burner. A commanding figure, wittily dressed in black drainpipes and high boots, but not given to ordering others about. We got on as equals on the road as he encouraged my reckless surges through gaps showing in a tailback. I was ‘James, James, don’t spare the horse-power’.
I got introduced to his wife, Jennifer, and her family, the Dunbar’s in their central London apartment. The father, Robert, was a famous film-maker who worked with Korda and Orson Welles, and the son, a painter, had been married to Marianne Faithful. Overawed, I disappeared into my provincial shell. Robert’s Russian wife, Tatiana, tried to draw me out by discussing the latest novel of an Irish author JG Farrell. I had read his Troubles but not the Indian novels, and muttered something about him not being Irish but Anglo. Even though I liked what I had read of Farrell, I didn’t want to admit it. He was too much of a cult figure for me. Ed saw how ill-at -ease I was and took my side (‘He is a Colonial writer, though better than Narayan), recognising the provincial bolshie in my perverse resistance to cosmopolitan fashion. He was a true son of the prairie town of Villa Grove, Illinois, on the banks of the river Embarras, where you were ‘a success if you managed to get out’.
Dorn had the blue-collared sharpness of Raymond Carver without the self-indulgence, and the scope of a latter-day Herman Melville without the prolixity. His pursuit of the White Whale of Post-Industrial Global Capitalism (PIGO) had more harpoon wit than blinkered fanaticism. Ishmael would have been his more reflective, compliant half-brother and Queequeg his practical self, ready to leap into the breach. But increasingly, as the world grew darker in the nineties, he resembled Bartleby the Scrivener, who ‘would prefer not to' do what was expected. His obdurate, cogent presence haunted his generation’s craven sagging into the ways of their fathers and the American nightmare we still live with. The broadsides hit their target running. Nobody but nobody was spared. This could lead to misunderstandings when it came to minority groups. They were not perfect too. Dorn in German means thorn.
Subsequently, we corresponded with occasional post-cards. He always had a campaign for me to take up. ‘Get the ‘Euro’ called the ‘Europa’. Its bullish connotations will corral the anxious Germans.’ And so on, concluding with a fiscal declaimer. ‘But hey, who asked me? Like Marx’s mother said, ‘I wish Karl had spent more time making Kapital than writing about it.’ He introduced me to American cowboy poetry, an off-shoot of Country and Western, and was surprised when he asked me to send him something for Sniper Logic. He had found out from someone that I wrote poetry. I sent him my book-length narrative poem, The Credit, a poor man’s Slinger. He replied that it would come in handy for his teaching and ordered twenty copies. It made me feel I had a future.
In the 1980s at a poetry festival in Keele University, I was loath to interrupt Ed in deep conversation in a corner with the Geordie poet, Barry McSweeney. Barry was like a bird perched in his hand. Clearly Ed was feeding him. The festival was my shy debut with the Big Names. Sorley McClean and Les Murray were there, and everybody else in the alternative mainstream. I was an also-ran, reading at an unfashionable hour. Ed turned up and I performed with more emotion than I’m wont. Afterwards we stretched the legs together in grounds as neat and tidy as the going was flat until we found a muddy field and plodded on. He talked about the native Americans. Thomas Jefferson believed they were the lost tribe of Israel. Ed said, that suffering alone would make the case for common roots. Strangers in their own land, pogromed, confined to settlements. Their genocide by white Protestant America was more effective than the Nazi’s. First the massacres, then the dispossession, not even trusted to be slaves. The agony was prolonged through the final solution of subsistence, dependence and degeneration. America knows how to make the worst of every possible worlds.
Ed Dorn, an honorary brave and not merely because his maternal Indian ancestry. He campaigned tirelessly for native rights. ‘It’s bright to recollect that the Apaches were noble not in themselves so much as in their ideas’. Recently Indians have begun to build casinos on the outskirts of their settlements. Customs such as taking their names from animals have been abandoned. Toothless warriors of the desert hover in the background while slot-machines are jolted by rednecks. Jangle. Jackpots. Then the snap of the wad of greenbacks sprung open on the palm. But Red Indians don’t blush… Ed was flinting with ironical rage behind his dark glasses. I thought of his line ‘Eyes like two bits of obsidian with a light behind them’.
In December 1998 Ed read at the Diorama Arts Centre in Regent’s Park, London. It was snowing and I couldn’t find the venue. A car pulled up beside me. ‘Augustus, what are you doing?’ The long laughing head of Ed Dorn leaned out the window, like the horse in Gunslinger. I followed the car through the portal. He greeted me as we arrived with ‘Leaf fall begins on September 30 and continues until December 15’ (advice to passengers on the London Underground that year).
Neoplasms of the pancreas had morphed Ahab into Beckett’s Hamm. But his poems were still fighting a one-man Gulf war against America’s treatment of the world. They had merged with his cancer. His scalpel mind cut through the deadly combination with a lathe that sang for a good hour. Clinton’s little ploy in Libya to divert Congress from impeachment articles related to indiscretions with a cigar, and two terrible years of chemotherapy. The source and courage of the writing was systemic, the same humorous strength took on personal illness and war mongering stupidity.
Many deaths were coming to him, including his own. The cutting edge modulates from surgical insults to ironic understanding, from hilarious screams of pained amusement to alarmingly tears (a side effect of his cancer treatment), absorbed by a paper-hanky and an apologetic smile. The auditorium-in-the-round giddied with him. His recoveries were sudden and blunt with asides (‘A victory for God over the shopping infidels’’). Laughter carried the bottled message. Nobody but Ed could string together a coherent world view on the rosary-beads of Billy Wright, Warren Christopher, George Bush, the Bill and Saddam sideshow (‘their mothers should have lost them to the Apaches or the desert, noxious people’). He threaded the narrative with personal experience of the horribly expensive drug that gave Shelley Winters an extra lease of poorer quality life. Mid cry, Ed gives me a wave from the podium. ‘Augustus, you found us.’
Afterward, a quick grip of his hand and I slip off. He must be exhausted. But next day I received a two-page letter regretting my disappearance. ‘I recognized you straight off without your beard’. I still had a beard.
Dorn was the one of three poets I met who lived up to their poetry: George Oppen, but I had only one afternoon with him: Brian Coffey and having all the time in the world we became friends. Ed was a missed opportunity. When I consider our near friendship, I’m furious with myself. A combination of false modesty (Ed turned up, not me) and a purblind assumption of his immortality. I greatly regret that I put off that trip to Denver once too often. We were to go together to the cowboy poetry festival. I joked with him that though he had the hat and the boots, but the only whip he possessed was his tongue. He threw me a lasso in reply, and I dodged it. Still he left me a little legacy. Last year The Credit, after not selling a copy for over twenty years had an order for thirty from America. One of his students had decided to teach it. Some consolation.
I decided to reissue it in an updated form (The Credit, an Opera in Search of its Music, Menard/ Duras, 2018). Jim Mays paid me the ultimate compliment of placing it on the bookshelf next to Ed Dorn’s Hello La Jolla.