Gerald Nicosia, Beat Scrapbook (Brooklyn: Coolgrove Press, 2020) 113 pages, $19.95
Gerald Nicosia has dedicated all his nonfiction books to describing those who, through whatever means, fought for the underdogs. His biography of Kerouac, the finest we have, Memory Babe, describes how the Beat author, himself from the lower class, in all his writings showed his sympathy for the downtrodden, whether it be city hustlers, Mexican street walkers or those who rode the boxcars with him as he traveled the country. In fact, one of the most developed points in Memory Babe is Nicosia’s bringing out that Kerouac’s greatness as a writer is closely tied to his far-reaching humanity. Then Nicosia turned to the Vietnam vets. In his Home to War, he left indelible portraits of activists, such as Ron Kovic, who denounced the war and the shabby treatment of vets, particularly, in later years, by battling the VA and the government who long denied them treatment for Agent Orange exposure and other ills they suffered. An outstanding feature of both these books is that in describing these fighters, there is absolutely no whitewashing. Kerouac, the vets, we see they all had strong flaws along with the tremendous virtues.
As a poet, Nicosia has ventured down various avenues, but, still, it is no surprise that in Beat Scrapbook, he turns in a personal way to providing a set of tributes to indelible characters, living and dead, who have set their seal on him and, in the cases of the writers and artists mentioned, put that seal on whole generations. As in his nonfiction books, he gives us unvarnished, unforgettable pen portraits of outstanding individuals. When he talks of the Beats, who appear frequently, his writing has a special clarity, particularly when contrasted to other writers’ memorials to Ginsberg, Corso and other luminaries. Those who write encomia are often lamenting figures whom they know only through their writing or, at best, from a few encounters. Nicosia generally surpasses these other (praiseworthy) efforts, I think, because of what he brings to his appreciation. He is deeply familiar with their writing, and writes with a particularly considered knowledge, since as a trained literary critic, he is able to uncover the deeper patterns that move through their work. He also knew well many of the writers he profiles, such as Harold Norse, Bob Kaufman, Jack Micheline, Gregory Corso, Jan Kerouac, David Meltzer, Ntozake Shange, and many others. Further, as a biographer of Jack Kerouac, his daughter Jan and other Beats, he has a full knowledge of these writers’ backgrounds, struggles and, as important, their political and social milieus. This means Nicosia’s poems have a triple depth, combining aesthetic, personal, and historical insight.
Take, as an example of this, the poem “FOR JACK KEROUAC IN NORTHPORT.” The author is visiting the town and stops in front of Gunther’s Bar. He looks not at the bar but at the street in front of it as this recalls a sad scene from Kerouac’s life when he was on his last legs or, more precisely, getting off his last legs. Nicosia thinks of him:
in front of Gunther’s Bar
where you laid down one night
when the cars were all pulling out
their headlights glaring over your body
nearly invisible in the shadows
while you invited your own death
How did Nicosia come by this remembrance? I doubt if the city fathers put up a plaque on the side of Gunther’s saying, “Here the famous writer Jack Kerouac lay dead drunk in the street.” No, Nicosia, having written the definitive Kerouac biography, is steeped in the man’s life, which means steeped in the writer’s self-doubts and torments. With this perspective, he doesn’t tell the story as a colorful anecdote but as a way to cut to the heart of what Jack was (most likely) feeling as he sprawled there:
for a moment I was you
and I felt how hard that choice
must have been
standing there all by yourself
apart from the happy world
no one to tell you
which way to go.
Thus, Nicosia effortlessly interweaves his familiarity with Kerouac’s life, his personal relationship to this town where he interviewed many who knew Kerouac and, cementing that awareness, what Nicosia gained from a close reading of the Beats’ writing.
The portraits in the book are not all of well-known, convention-battering writers, but include disruptors of all types, such as veteran activists, and other people with whom he has been close, such as his parents and a former girlfriend. Indeed, at first glance, it is hard to find what unites these disparate folks. Although Nicosia claims he found a unifying factor in that they were all outsiders in one way or another, I found my own clue in a letter Herbert Marcuse wrote to a Chicago Surrealist. Marcuse asserted that people would only become interesting subjects of art when they allowed an “aesthetic dimension” to enter their work.
This statement might seem quite tangential to Beat Scrapbook, but a further look reveals the people Nicosia memorializes are those radical outsiders who are already, as best they can, living in a world where quality work–not career-minded, not greed-minded labor–takes precedence. This is the world Marcuse thinks can only exist under socialism. Phillip Lamantia, who incidentally was closely connected to the Surrealist group Marcuse was addressing, epitomizes this attitude. Lamantia liked to move around, believing,
you had to keep walking
to savor it all
fame and money would have caused
As a latter day Transcendentalist, this poet, as Nicosia comments, was like:
Thoreau [who] avoided worldly success
just as you did.
Still, while Lamantia did have a considerable reputation, it is the more obscure but equally significant writers, such as John Montgomery, who perhaps better embody this ideal. For them, fame and fortune, while not scorned, were not top priorities. Montgomery, in Nicosia’s words,
working [like Bukowski] for the post office
spending half his earnings on postage
took literature seriously
never forgot the needy,
and, we learn, was dear friend to Kerouac.
Moreover, to get right down to it, such qualitative living is hardly the preserve of artists. As Nicosia, with his resolutely democratic temperament, shows, this same orientation can be found in everyday folks, such as his friends and relatives. Working woman Charmaine is a good example. She seems to have been a lover, seeing as they first met
in a singles bar
on Fillmore Street.
She had a rough upbringing, “Born illegitimate under a Hawaiian sun,” but she doesn’t dwell on that:
what had to be done
this life you’d been given such a total mess.
Instead she puts foremost, not making money and chasing a career, but spirituality and healing:
you loafed at work
but never have I known a harder worker
at the job of straightening out the bends
of God or nature…
In Scrapbook, then, Nicosia has hung a gallery of portraits of those who heroically (and usually with a good dose of humor) resist conforming to a world obsessed with reputation and bank accounts; and, instead, live by putting a true quality of life foremost, letting the “aesthetic dimension” infuse their friendships, solidarity with others (especially shown in the depictions of a vets leader), artistic productivity, conversation and laughter.
Yet, balancing this against the exuberance and joy found in the characters he describes, the poems often end on very somber notes, concluding with a sad, searching thought. One cause of this final sobriety is that, underlying his reflections on these outsiders, is a point hammered home so vividly in Memory Babe. Those in American society who don’t follow the stifling rules are going to have hard going. Moreover, a second cause is that many of these poems are epitaphs, in which Nicosia doesn’t flinch from describing the reality of loss. Once one of these intense figures dies, all the knowledge, wisdom, chutzpah, wit and guidance they had to offer is gone. The poet’s words about Gary Snyder, imagining the then near 90-year-old will not be around for much longer, are poignant.
You want me to love the wild
But I love you, Gary
because there is only one of you
And you will soon be
Repeatedly dwelling in grief in these particular poems, Nicosia doesn’t simply sing the blues but offers some consolation, noting, for instance, that in the case of writers at least, we still have their literature. As Nicosia says, with particular lyricism, about Kerouac:
And as long as there’s a human heart left
To care about that [everyday misery]
You’ll still be here
To keep us company
On life’s broken road.
However, such solace only goes so far and only applies to artists. Moreover, as the poet aptly points out about Jack Micheline, even though we retain his words, with his death the writer’s great exuberance and joie de vivre are snuffed out, as well as the willingness to listen of a man
whose ear was a perennial post office box
that no one will ever replace.
There’s another consolation, one Nicosia doesn’t name, but which Shakespeare describes in his sonnets. The bard notes that even when his beautiful love passes on, she will live on in his verse. We can say the same for the people Nicosia so richly portrays, for they will continue to live in his verse, so that, in Shakespeare’s line, “in black ink my love may still shine bright.”