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A Berth in the Haven

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by Martha King

An Excerpt from Outside Inside, a Memoir

 

Painting: Paul and Joan Blackburn, by Basil King

 

A berth at Grand Haven had been dead Paul Blackburn’s gift to us. A teaching position at Thomas Jefferson College of Grand Valley State Colleges in Annandale, Michigan. TJC.

I thought it was weirdly ironic. Baz and Paul had spent a long evening together when Paul was first offered a teaching job at Cortland. I heard the details: how it had been enormously difficult for Paul to think of leaving his haunts, his city, his pastorale. His apartment on 7th Street was critically small, but babies and wives had squeezed into smaller places in the New York that we knew then. To take up the offer, Paul would have to give up the apartment, and giving up a place with location and rent control is never an easy idea in New York City, not even then. Paul, natural teacher that he was, was racked with qualms about his ease or ability in a classroom. There would be, he said, a substantial chance that other faculty would loathe him. He would certainly arrive as an outsider, with unorthodox academic achievements. His publications and his connections, for example to Ezra Pound, could easily make him a target.

But, Baz argued, he was spending hours weekly scrambling for translation jobs and other ill paid literary scut work. Paul was savvy and could make it work, Baz told him.  In the end it would be worth it, a step into a more ordered way of living, clearing the way for more time to think and work and be a family with Joan and the new baby.

 

*

 

So, in the summer of 1971, his last summer on earth, after little more than a year of teaching at Cortland, Paul orchestrated a return offer for Baz. Paul had flown out to Grand Haven to attend a national poetry festival hosted by TJC. The festival was underwritten by Paul’s friend Dan Gerber, poet/publisher and heir to the Gerber Baby Food Corporation of Upper Michigan. It was organized by Robert vas Dias, who was also Paul’s beneficiary and had taken up the position of TJC’s poet-in-residence. Prompted by Paul, Gerber told the school administrators, who were eager to ingratiate their new college with a major North Michigan millionaire, to seek out Basil King as the lynch pin of a new art department for the school.

TJC was Dan Gerber’s bid for cultural gravy. This is the Mid West, this is where normal is. If this new school was Western Michigan’s answer to the social revolutions of the sixties, it might also be its answer to Eastern Ivy League dominance of literary culture. TJC was a school for self-directed education, a school inspired partly by Students for a Democratic Society, by ideals of other education experiments like Oregon’s Evergreen and St. John’s ‘great books’ school in Annapolis. By Dewey, by Bahaus. Could TJC become a place for art influenced by the ideals of Black Mountain?

Dan Gerber was a prince, the golden-boy son of parents who had lived the all-America story, building a business sprung from grandma grinding home-cooked apples in her kitchen into an international Fortune 500 corporation. After some fits and starts, including a few years as a professional race car driver, Dan was inventing himself as a poet, a home-grown normal with straight-up maverick tastes. Along with Jim Harrison he’d started Sumac magazine and then Sumac Press — and he had designs on the new college down the road.

The first National Poetry Festival took place in 1971,and is most vividly remembered by old friends for Paul Blackburn’s appearance. He flew in from Cortland and let on that the throat cancer he’d developed was in remission. He was frighteningly thin, but recovering he implied. He gave splendid performances on stage and off. Jackson MacLow’s poem recounts this vividly, for even as dear a friend as Jackson didn’t penetrate Paul’s defenses.

Paul knew he would be dead by summer’s end, and he entertained with his usual wit. He smiled. Robert Bly, Ted Berrigan, Gregory Corso, Robert Creeley, Robert Kelly, Al Young, James Wright, Diane Wakoski, Sonia Sanchez, Jerome Rothenberg, Joel Oppenheimer, Jackson MacLow, Tom Weatherly, Anselm Hollo, Phil Whalen, John Logan, Armand Schwerner – the close and the distant were all relieved. Not to worry, said Paul’s squint and his grin. I’m here where I should be, among the people who mean most to me.

He died in early September, 197l, not quite two months later, a year and three months after the Aldgate exhibition at Judson Church, and three weeks after Baz drove me and Harry Lewis in Harry’s VW, the Little Tin It, up to Cortland to say goodbye to him.

Don’t wait, he told Baz on the phone.

We had a weekend to spend together. Paul insisted on driving us around to see Cortland’s countryside. Lush rolling bliss, low blue hills, rich crops, farm roads with the kind of roadside junk shops that Paul found irresistible; forest tracks; meadows full of Queen Anne’s Lace, goldenrod, Black Eyed Susan. Those broad sunny uplands that wait for us after a war. Don’t wait he told Baz, and got us all laughing as he mimicked Robert Kelly on a picnic. Kelly in nature: Open car door, look out at roadside weeds, shut the door, rush home, write nature poetry.

“Don’t wait,” he said to Baz, and he was serious.

Paul’s sister Gloria arrived. She knew how to administer morphine shots, a task Joan couldn’t master. Joan was half locked down and half a vigilant attendant, urging Paul to drink tall glasses of unpasteurized organic milk and herbal porridges thinned to drinking consistency. Magic might sustain him. Sustenance might sustain him. Purity. Secrets in the grass. She was in her early twenties with a baby not two years old. Paul sipped for her sake as he was able, but refused prayers or spells. He was quite clear about what was happening.

Joan was bitterly angry that Sunday morning because Baz and Paul had grown heated and emotional in their final talk the night before. It seemed right to me; they had things to say, and both of them lived with so many secrets. Joan simply saw Basil leaching Paul’s tiny store of energy. Anything misspent might prevent that possible miracle turn-around she was depending on. Late Saturday night Paul had told Baz that he had a major poem to write and should get started.

“Don’t wait,” he said from the terrible perspective of numbered days. Paul was 46. Just coming into his own as an adult.

 

*

 

The next January, in the middle of a cold snap that drove the Midwest into wind chills of forty below, Baz drove the Little Tin It out to Michigan for an interview at TJC and under the twinkly black sky of Allendale, Michigan, called me on a payphone to say he had secured Paul’s gift, an academic time-out in Dutchman country, a piece of Dick and Jane Land for our daughters, who were now eight-and-a-half and ten; a loopy, as it turned out mercifully brief marriage to the great middle way so beloved of Dan Gerber and Jim Harrison. For Baz and me it was yet another way and place to be outside the inside.

 

*

 

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Martha King was born in Virginia in 1937. She attended Black Mountain College in the summer of 1955 and married Basil King in 1958. She began writing in the late 1960s, after the birth of their two daughters, Mallory and Hetty. Living in Brooklyn since 1968, King produced 31 issues of Giants Play Well in the Drizzle (sent free to interested readers), worked as an editor in mainstream book publishing, then for Poets & Writers, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Her books include North & South (2007), a collection of short stories, Separate Parts (2002), and Little Tales of Family and War (1999). Other stories have been anthologized in Fiction from the Rail and The Wreckage of Reason. Currently, King is at work on a memoir, Outside Inside, chapters from which have appeared in  New York Stories and several online magazines. She blogs at basilking.net.

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