JANUARY 29, 2015
THIS IS A STORY about Los Angeles, its literature, and how I came to know it. More precisely, it’s about the well-known novelist Christopher Isherwood and the virtually unknown poet Henri Coulette, and how I came to know them. I found Coulette’s verse through Donald Justice, whose work I discovered, in turn, after running across Weldon Kees. A photograph of Kees — neatly trimmed moustache, neatly tailored gray flannel suit, right arm bent cleanly at the waist with a cigarette between the index and middle fingers — appeared above the masthead of a journal that accepted two bits of my two-bit juvenilia many, many years ago. Kees to Justice to Coulette. In 1960 Justice had edited Kees’s collected poems, five years after the poet had disappeared, having, in all likelihood, leapt from the Golden Gate Bridge. Thirty years later — this time with Robert Mezey — Justice edited Coulette’s collected poems, two years after the poet had died of a heart attack in his home in South Pasadena. I thought of Kees as my Virgil; Justice was my master; and Coulette — Coulette was something more, a kindred spirit, a fellow Angeleno.
There aren’t many Angeleno poets with whom I feel a true kinship. When I think of Los Angeles poetry, I think of Randall Jarrell’s The Lost World (1965):
On my way home I pass a cameraman
On a platform on the bumper of a car
Inside which, rolling and plunging, a comedian
Is working; on one white lot I see a star
Stumble to her igloo through the howling gale
Of the wind machines. On Melrose a dinosaur
And pterodactyl with their immense pale
Papier-mâché smiles, look over the fence
Of The Lost World.
I appreciate that blend of coolness and naivety, that intimate tone. The speaker is aware of LA’s peculiarity but doesn’t disparage it; he maintains just enough distance without being aloof. Yes, the town is a stage set, but it’s also the stage where our lives play out — lives no less rich, no less meaningful than those playing out elsewhere. Look to the side of the gaudy stars and you’ll see the extras:
Today, they are the subjects of a king,
And they must cheer his passage through the town
This coronation morning, cheer his taking
Purple and ermine, the sceptre and the crown.
They have, they will again, take after take,
But now the star, his agent at his sleeve,
Has disappeared. Their thoughts come back to them,
Like shadows, and they rest from make-believe.
Duchess and chimney sweep are Blossom and Hank.
A light is asked for, and a light is given.
Gossip is music played upon the breath
By wicked tongues, and anecdote is heaven.
Simply human is what their costumes smell of;
Simply human is what their faces say.
They make the lobby and the street look real.
Practicing every day for Judgment Day,
They draw the circle that becomes a crown;
They draw bathwater on a bended knee,
And curtains on the night, and they draw blood.
They are the after that comes After Me.
This is Coulette. He knew the city well — and well beyond Hollywood. He knew it so well he didn’t need to name it. Its themes were the themes of his life. Take his poem about his mother, whose search for spiritual meaning sours her relationship with her children. Hers is a peculiarly Angeleno form of spiritual questing, which had led droves of transplanted Midwesterners into the opulent temples of round-heeled charlatans in the 1920s and ’30s and bevies of runaways into the hands of Father Yod in the 1960s and ’70s. Unlike so many commentators, Coulette treats this phenomenon with great sympathy; it’s too close to home to dismiss out of hand. In an interview with Michael Harper, Coulette offered a key to the poem, mentioning the “I AM business,” one of the most colorful theosophical movements of the Depression era — but one needn’t know the specifics to get at the heart of the thing, or the heartbreak:
Everything’s left to the imagination,
Mother says, and winks
an eye, green and beautiful.
I nod encouragement, and wink back,
imagining myself anywhere but here,
in this room, with this woman.
She has been very famous in her lifetimes —
Alexander Hamilton —
this poor Irish daughter of the man
who invented the Nabisco fig newton,
this woman who has no friends.
She is being watched by agents of the Kremlin;
an agent herself
of the Ascended Masters,
she knows, she knows. St. Germain is here,
now, in this room. See, the light bulb is blinking!
K-17 is here too,
and the Lord Kathumi is in the kitchen.
I nod, I must nod,
or be a Black Magician.
And if I did speak, what could I say?
There are ashes on all your sidewalks, Mother.
There are ashes in my mouth.
Coulette didn’t need to name Griffith Park — that vast green haven in the middle of the city — in his poem about a traumatized World War II vet who’d managed to hide out on its overgrown hillsides for years. Instead, he works through his own urge to escape from a world in which, one gathers, he always felt himself to be an outsider, a kind of secret agent. (His first collection contains a long sequence titled The War of the Secret Agents, based on Jean Overton Fuller’s Double Webs , an exposé of Britain’s Special Operations Executive during World War II.)
The children have packed up the light
And gone home for the bedtime story
In which Jack wakes the Sleeping Fury.
I count tin cans and comic books;
I listen for the wheel of night,
That furry rim, those velvet spokes.
Some know it by the rush of stars;
I know it by the rush of thought:
Images, like the shrill onslaught
Of cyclists on a black-top road,
Come on and catch me unawares:
I am the victim of their mood.
It is a rehash of the day,
The rooms remembered for their anger,
The crowded stairways for their danger,
And what the light did to a mirror
You thought you knew. It is a way
Of being faithful to one’s terror.
I will sit here a little while,
Recalling how I read about
A man who found a strange way out,
The hermit of this wooded park,
Gaunt Crusoe of a nowhere isle,
Who hides his bushel in the dark.
He may be watching even now,
His dark hands up his darker sleeves,
The last of the great make-believes.
He moves in an enormous grave,
The wilderness pressed to his brow,
A man of motion without drive.
I wonder, Does he name the trees?
And to what end? Or like a bird,
Does he know calls that know no word?
And does he conjure without number?
And when, against the moon, he sees
My silhouette, does he remember?
Batman is whispering in the wind;
The cans are jewelled with the stars,
Evening Venus and red-eyed Mars.
I am an eight-hour daylight man,
And I must go to keep my mind
Familiar and American.
Nor did Coulette need to name California State University, Los Angeles — where he studied under Thomas McGrath in the 1950s and where he taught from the 1960s until his death — in a poem called “The Academic Poet,” written in syllabic lines, of which he was a modern master:
My office partner dozes
at his desk, whimpering now
as he dreams his suicide.
The November light kisses
the scar of his last attempt.
I open my mail: a plea
for the starving Indian
children of North Dakota;
a special offer from Time,
Life, and Fortune; a letter
from a 65-year-old
former student, suggesting
a gland transplant that will make
a man of me; it hurts him
to hear what they are saying
about me behind my back.
It hurts me to hear what they
are saying to my face, pal.
I circle two misspelled words
and write, “Help I am being
held captive at Mickey Mouse
State College,” across the top,
wondering is this the one,
or the fat woman, perhaps,
with the post-menopause craze
for strict forms. “The sestina –
can you use any six words?”
Well, yes, but they should define
a circle, which is the shape
I describe, chasing my tail
from class to class, the straight line
disguised, degree by degree.
It was at Cal State LA that Coulette met Christopher Isherwood — British by birth but an Angeleno to the core. Like Coulette’s mother, Isherwood was a spiritual seeker, for years a disciple of Swami Prabhavananda, head of the Los Angeles chapter of the Vedanta Society. His fellow expats Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley had flirted with Vedanta but gave it up; Isherwood stayed — in a small apartment-building-turned-monastery adjacent to a craftsman-home-turned-“Tiny Taj Mahal.” Like Coulette, and for his own reasons, Isherwood was a perennial outsider for whom LA was as close to home as any place ever would be. Coulette wound up with a cameo in A Single Man (1964), which may be Isherwood’s masterpiece, and is certainly one of the finest Los Angeles novels. He appears as “Grant Lefanu, the young physics professor who writes poetry”:
George [the protagonist] rather loves him. He is small and thin, and has glasses and large teeth and the maddish smile of genuine intellectual passion. You can easily imagine him as one of the terrorists back in Czarist Russia a hundred years ago. Given the opportunity, he would be that kind of fanatic hero who follows an idea, without the least hesitation and as a matter of course, straight through to its expression in action. … As a matter of fact, Grant has recently performed at least one act of minor heroism. He has appeared in court as a defense witness for a bookseller caught peddling some grand old sex classic of the twenties; it used to be obtainable only in the lands of the Latins, but now, through a series of test cases, it is fighting for its right to be devoured by American youth. … Grant treats George as a fellow subverter, a compliment which George hardly deserves, since, with his seniority, his license to play the British eccentric, and, in the last resort, his little private income, he can afford to say pretty much anything he likes on campus.
It’s hard to say how close Isherwood and Coulette really were. The younger poet certainly respected the older writer, and the British transplant certainly sympathized with the American poet. I like them both a great deal. My sense of Los Angeles — the city I know and love — is shaped in large part by their work, which was, in turn, shaped by the city they knew and loved.
A funny thing happened on New Year’s Eve of 2008. I spent the last few days of the outgoing year in San Francisco, at a conference where I read some poems and translations. It was a good trip. I’d had a couple of Irish coffees before the reading at a bar called Mr. Bing’s, to soften my nerves. Everything went well, and I capped the evening off with a giant turkey leg at Tommy’s Joynt. But I couldn’t wait to get back to LA. I’d even grabbed an Isherwood book at some bookstore (not City Lights, but I forget …), just to hear a familiar voice. The book was Prater Violet (1945), written in Los Angeles but concerning life in London in the 1930s. It’s a roman à clef, based on his experiences filming Little Friend (1934) with the Austrian director Berthold Viertel, renamed Friedrich Bergmann in the novel. Viertel had fled the Nazis, whose presence on the periphery casts a long shadow over all the silly studio intrigue that makes up the book’s plot — as it did over the lives of all the World War II–era exiles in Los Angeles: Adorno, Brecht, Mann, Schoenberg, Stravinsky. Isherwood’s and Viertel’s fictional alter egos come to understand and respect each other. It’s a wonderful book. I couldn’t tear myself away, and found myself nearing the end on New Year’s Eve, in LA, in bed. Very near midnight, if not at the stroke, I came to the following passage:
It was that hour of night when the street lamps seem to shine with an unnatural, remote brilliance, like planets on which there is no life. The King’s Road was wet-black, and deserted as the moon. It did not belong to the King, or to any human being. The little houses had shut their doors against all strangers and were still, waiting for dawn, bad news and the milk. There was nobody about. Not even a policeman. Not even a cat.
I can’t describe the feeling I had just then. It was one of immediate recognition, more insistent than déjà vu. I really had read this before, or something very much like it. It was years earlier, at the UCLA Research Library, in the oak-paneled reading room of their Special Collections. A small pamphlet. Just a few pages. Poems — fragments, really — that Donald Justice and Robert Mezey had found among Coulette’s papers when compiling his collected. Scribbles on backs of envelopes, on bills. Blank notebooks with a single page filled out. That sort of thing. They called the pamphlet The Enormous Lonelies, and printed it in a very small run — maybe a hundred and fifty. Even that was too many. Who’d care?
I cared, of course, and had worked up some excuse to request it from Special Collections. I remember sitting there, communing, at the long table. I copied out nearly the whole thing onto a legal pad. I had the first fragment memorized by the time the Sunset bus dropped me off at Fairfax:
The street lamps/ shine with the
shine/ of dead planets.
Raymond Hill Road
no longer belongs to Raymond.
It belongs to the moon.
The houses have shut their doors
against all strangers,
but sleep with one eye open.
They are waiting for dawn,
and the milk.
There is nobody about.
Not even a cop
Nor even a cat.
Why don’t you kill yourself?
What had Coulette done, plagiarized Isherwood? No. He had recognized something. He’d recognized Pasadena’s Raymond Hill Road in London’s King’s. He’d recognized himself in the passage. He’d recognized his voice in Isherwood’s, had read himself into the novel, had no choice but to write himself into it. I remember that final non sequitur in Coulette’s fragment — that question without an answer — hitting me hard when I’d first read it. It must have hit Justice and Mezey equally hard. What can you say to the man?
Coulette had cribbed the question directly out of Isherwood’s book. Isherwood had the answer:
There is one question which we seldom ask each other directly: it is too brutal. And yet it is the only question worth asking our fellow-travelers. What makes you go on living? Why don’t you kill yourself? Why is all this bearable? What makes you bear it?
Could I answer that question about myself? No. Yes. Perhaps … I supposed, vaguely, that it was a kind of balance, a complex of tensions. You did whatever was next on the list. A meal to be eaten. Chapter eleven to be written. The telephone rings. You go off somewhere in a taxi. There is one’s job. There are amusements. There are people. There are books. There are things to be bought in shops. There is always something new. There has to be. Otherwise, the balance would be upset, the tension would break.
This January I’m leaving Los Angeles. I’m bringing my books, and the people behind them — Isherwood, Coulette. I’m bringing Los Angeles with me, even as I am expecting something new.