Rocks in Our Beds: A Dark Valentine to New England
John Clellon Holmes | September/October 1987
John Clellon Hoimes closed an enviable teaching career when he took early retirement from the writing program at the University of Arkansas and returned with his wife, Shirley, to their home in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. For a generation he had sharpened the edges of writers at Arkansas, Iowa, Bowling Green, and Brown, serving a term along the way on the board of AWP. His influence on the poems, stories, and non-fiction that we call our contemporary literature is large in these terms alone but, like any good teacher of writers, John Holmes was always a writer first.
His stories, poems, reviews, and articles have appeared in major journals throughout the English-speaking world. His books have been translated into Danish, German, Italian, and Swedish and have had wide publication in the United Kingdom. He won first place three times in the Playboy "Best Non-Fiction" awards and in 1978 took the New Letters/Alexander Cappon Prize. The Beat movement is marked by his remarkable and definitive work, Nothing More to Declare.
In November, The University of Arkansas Press will publish Displaced Person: The Travel Essays, as the first of three volumes of the essays of John Holmes. It will be followed by Representative Men: The Biographical Essays and Passionate Opinions: The Cultural Essays, moving from the writer and his own journeys to other people and other places and then to ideas themselves and the idea that is our culture. The trilogy will stand as a monument not only to John Holmes as a writer and thinker but to writing itself and to the idea of writing.
The essay that follows is from Displaced Person: The Travel Essays.
My heart is heavy as lead
because the blues have spread
rocks in my bed.
Elective affinities, correspondences, analogies. Oh, New England, how you curse your scribblers with a double-view! The autumn twilight haunted by burnt August in the wood smoke; skeletal tree-shadows on virgin snow in the piercing clarity of winter-sun; the loosening loam and early budlets of hesitant, pastel spring; the summers, languid and abuzz and brief, tinged with the foreknowledge of the red and yellow withering to come-in such seasonal places the senses are poised, keen, made avaricious by the imminence of change. The imagination smoulders, flares, dies, only to flare again. And boys in attic rooms in redbrick factory towns, or in the kerosene kitchens of upland farms, or in sight of deep water in the Bostons and New Bedfords of the region, sit up late, alone, and one night start to write. New England, oldest and most homely of American places—it's what's fleeting and elusive in you that demands words! The centuries-old redbrick towns and upland farms remain, but the scribbling boys are stabbed by a premonition of their own mortality. Time, as inevitable as December, drives them on, and all too often away.
I was one of those ruminative boys, Jack Kerouac was another; Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, John Weiners, Larry Eigner—still others. New England's stony fields and twisting streets, which had bred the earliest American literature, bred us too. Later, we would decamp for the New Yorks, Mexico Cities, Friscos, and Londons of the vast and morally ambivalent world beyond, but New England, a mere postage stamp on the immense envelope of modern consciousness, was nevertheless stamped, uncancelled, on our imaginations. To the critics, we were all wanderers—the flotsam of cities, jazz, dope, and psychic anarchy. Actually, we were seeking to align the phantom vision and the factual reality of that double view, and the taproot in us (what Lawrence called "the spirit of place") wouldn't pull. It had ensnarled itself in the inhospitable soil of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and Connecticut. And it held.
On the banks of the flood-choked Pemige was set River in Plymouth, New Hampshire, in 1937, I stood in muddy shoes, with a paper bagful of doughnuts just tonged out of the grease by our half-Algonquin cook, Dorothy, watching with awe as upwrenched trees sailed seaward, and the pilings of the bridge to Holderness stood stubborn and span less in the boiling surge, and knew the dawning of a first awareness-this was a world-in-time! Rushing heedlessly around us, into us, through us! And I had no words to deal with the perception, and thereby discovered the reality, and the necessity, of words. I ached to build pilings that would withstand the flood in me.
Down river a few days later, beyond where the Pemige was set flowed into the Merrimack, Kerouac watched those same trees quickeningly borne under the Moody Street Bridge in Lowell on their way to that most austere of seas, the North Atlantic, and perhaps first heard the dire mwee-hee-hee of Dr. Sax echo in the roar beneath his shoes. We would discover this eerie correspondence in our lives only years later in New York, up way past midnight, the river of traffic in the clashing street below roaring as loud as the converging rivers of our boyhood, and bringing the memory back to both of us in the same instant.
Oddly, though we were associated with New England all our writing-lives, both of us having written novels about it, Kerouac and I were outlanders there. Though we had both been born in Massachusetts (at opposite ends of the state), I had spent much of my childhood in New Jersey, California and Long Island, and Jack was of French Canadian stock, and was always dogged by a dark sense of foreignness. Yet we both felt New England in us, as if it were a mother-place, spectral with deja vu. Through all his peregrinations, his many temporary homes, Jack longed for a cabin in the deep woods of New Hampshire, or for the cozy kitchens of Lowell. It was the one ghost-hope that never left him. For myself, after ten years of city-life had started to corrode my nerves, I instinctively moved to a ramshackle house in Connecticut, took to the saws and hammers, and made a home at last.
Once, during one of his spells of desperate spiritual homesickness, when the cabin-vision was upon him like a claw on his forehead, Jack wrote to me: "Oh, John, Alack, a John, John a dreams, I'll be Thoreau to your Emerson." Elective affinities again. Literature, like a gravestone-rubbing, laid over life until the shadow, image and the substance of the stone were one, words at once approximate to the grariite that had endured and the person lying under it who hadn't, except as a name, a scrap of scripture, and the dates. The source of our awareness of time and eternity was in the handsawn clapboards that had withstood a hundred raging Novembers, and in the old bricks behind which all the Dickensian looms had long gone silent, and in the impersonal sea on which no whaler, trawler or merchantman had ever left a mark to indicate that they had set out, and somehow gotten back, and set out again, and one day not returned. We lived with this as we lived with the seasons. All voyages, like all youths, all summers, all vaulting hopes, end in the ambiguity of the Pequod stoven-in as much by Ahab as by Moby Dick.
Kerouac's immodest analogy between the Concord writers and ourselves was natural to the likes of us, though it was somewhat inaccurate. Like Emerson, he had a taste for the arcane and mystical; like Thoreau, I had an equal taste for logic and clarity. He was given to pithily-stated apothegms like Emerson. I tended to see things, Thoreau-like, in terms of irony. Like Emerson, Jack was notorious in his time, a freshet of hints that undammed other men. I sank quickly and quietly into an obscurity not unlike Thoreau's. Both of us, like them, eventually looked to the East. In our different ways, we were Transcendentalists. I beat out my exile in the suffocating cities, and became a countryman- a reasonably good carpenter, electrician and recluse. Jack never made it, and remained psychologically displaced and physically uprooted until it killed him. Both of us had a taste for the local, and for locality, but when we were together in New England, he and I, we never felt the need to speak of the place. We didn't enthuse over quaint houses, mittened winters, waterfront taverns, Scollay Square when it was sordid and exciting, brown doilied parlors, icy nose tips, furnace ashes on the stoops, hard cider with a prickle in it, the primitive content to be found in blazing fireplaces, the smell of damp books in plain stone libraries, April's uprush in the throat—it all just came back, the dust-covers on the furniture of these memories snatched off in an instant, and we knew we need not explain anything to each other about—well, all that. But it was New England that spoke in Doctor Sax, where all the coagulated evil in the world gathers like a cosmic boil, and then bursts into a husk of doves. Equally, it was New England that drove my Old Man Molineaux (in Get Home Free) to struggle against his kedge anchor, hungering after wild places, only to collapse at the end, capitulant and secretly relieved, having experienced them all in his imagination anyway. In New England, speculation is no farther away than the woodpile; spiritual bliss comes to the swinger-of-birches.
So we were subtly different from Ginsberg or Burroughs or Corso in our crowd. We wore a sense of the past like a birthmark. Indians skulked our dreams. Guilt, like the evening cry of a loon over a sinister, fir-girt lake, guilt for the truths we had believed in and failed to find, encouraged in us a fatal premonitory sense. Still, I was privately proud of the name of the bad versifier that I bore, and Jack was pursued all his life by a feeling that an unknown heritage was his—but from whom? He never stopped trying to search out his enigmatic lineage. Allen (from New Jersey) and Bill (from St. Louis) and Gregory (from Lower New York) never felt this strong pull backwards, not alone to family, but to place, to continuum, to a tradition of mind constantly in need of freshening. Time was the ghost behind the woodwork for Jack and me, and in our inmost natures we believed, despite rapturous or desperate asseverations to the contrary; that he who fights time can only lose. We were Transcendentalists with hangovers—that was the difference. We had moral rocks in our beds.
We liked the great Russian novelists because of New England. We were no strangers to cramped rooms, cold streets, extremes of introspection. We were at home with Zen Koans and "dark nights of the soul" when they came to us, having read Emily Dickinson and William James. The ambiguities of puritan fervor and pagan fever entered us with Hawthorne, reaching an ultimate pitch in Herman Melville, an outsider in New England himself, in whose work language struggles to at once contain and release the intuitive knowledges that lie buried beneath all intellection.
The bed's a place for dreams, and rest, and love a private place. But our beds were like New England's stony fields. You had to work hard before you could dream in them, much less hope. You piled the stones into fences, you dug and heaved and dragged at them in all weathers, raging, despairing, intent, all alone at the task, but always brooding on more than the task because you knew the fences would outlast you. Kerouac played phantom baseball games in his upstairs room; I deployed armies of lead soldiers in battles as complex as Waterloo. But as we played them, we mused far beyond these callow games, and early on we both began to write away the psychological bruises of nights spent in those rocky beds. Robert Frost found in the day's toil out of doors the proper stuff for the evening's poems—but what austere and metaphysical bucolics they were! Melville found a fatal image in a fish. Just as Kerouac did in a milltown and its river, baldly deeming his account of it, Faust Part Three. And I saw in a reprobate old boozer all our secret hopes for heaven. We were religious men without a creed.
I could always drive a nail straight, and liked the same clean thwaack in a line of poetry. Olson knew that a poem and a porch stood up for the same reasons. Creeley made poems like the earth makes gems, subjecting rare stuff to great pressure, and waiting a long time. Jack's litmus-paper consciousness recorded the destiny, as well as the immediacy, of all sensations. Even our lyrical effusions, our vernal affirmations, were somehow autumnal too. Prodigality and thrift, excess and asceticism, hope and despair, warred not only in our world, but in our very natures. That was the New England view-commonplace and dooming as Eve's Mclntosh, as mysterious as the sweet syrup prisoned in the winter-tree.
The restlessly speculative nature achieves no certainties, no home port. Thoreau moved from Walden Pond, Henry Beston from the Outermost House. Melville ended up on 26th Street in New York as obscure as Kerouac in Florida. For New Englanders handle fame badly. It never corresponds to the sort of spiritual eminence they're after. They look over their shoulders or down at their feet when praised, as if the praiser hadn't glimpsed what might be truly praise-worthy, and cheapens praise by easy praising. Suspicious of groups, movements and messiahs, the New England writer knows that below the fumy brain is the importunate heart, and below that the sap that spring draws up into the loins, and below that the dumb feet planted on rock, and beneath the rock-clay. It is a view that sees the human being as the fragile circuit between heaven and earth, life as a limbo state, and literature the record ofa passage-through-the continual dissolution of forms into other forms, the clearing of a field. I think that those of us, who were from New England and became associated with the so-called Beats, brought this subtly different double view to their concerns. Hindu fakirs lie on beds of nails, the spirit conquering matter itself. But we had abstract rocks in our beds, and our nights and our lives were troublous with their haulage. "Go moan for man," Kerouac said, and his work was just such an outcry and a lamentation. Olson's enormous construct, Maximus, glimpsed all the world and all of time in Gloucester, just as Thoreau had done in Concord. Creeley, like Emily Dickinson before him, was a miniaturist, a diamond-cutter, but whole psychic worlds circled dangerously in his bitterly compacted prisms. My own work attempted to express a certain edge of fond skepticism about appearances, and a stubborn feeling for the heart that beats beneath our masquerades, which, as I've gotten older, seems the only part of wisdom on which I'll stand.
So, New England, you taught us to find the blessing in the curse you laid on us; you accustomed us to gales and sometimes perishing in them; you gave us a taste for things that are homely and well-made; you fashioned us into a peculiar breed-gloomy, speculative, always wrestling with that urgent poetry that only life-and-death-keyed people feel choking up in them, travelers whose wanderings are only circuitous routes of return.
Beyond the last league of the last sea is New Bedford again. Or the grave. Robert Lowell was heading for Back Bay when his life gave out. Jack's back in Lowell now. We New England writers of this time sold our wooden nutmegs to the world, and some of us have lived to see them prized as artifacts. Who knows? Perhaps that was the intention all along. To see the spirit in the meanest of things. For after the night, is light. Then dark again. But that new dark is peopled, and the field less rockstrewn than before.