Essay

“Death Will Be My Final Lover”

The Life of Alden Van Buskirk

by Garrett Caples
“Death Will Be My Final Lover”

… death will be my final lover.
I give her all.
—“Last will and,” Lami (34)

When he died alone in a San Francisco hospital on December 11, 1961, Alden Van Buskirk, or “Van,” as he was known to most of his friends, was only 23 years old and had yet to publish a poem in anything other than a student periodical. Even today, Van’s published literary remains have a picturesque randomness worthy of a character in a Borges story. They are:

1) Lami, a 91-page volume of poems largely written during the last year of the poet’s life and published posthumously by Auerhahn in 1965, with an introductory note by Allen Ginsberg. The book is divided into four sections corresponding to Van’s life and travels: “Lami in Oakland,” which features a long, nine-part title poem; “Lami in St. Louis,” which includes 14 numbered “Tales” set in St. Louis; a section of miscellaneous early poems mostly set in Vermont; and a final section composed of a poem and a letter to David Rattray dated “November 1961.”

2) Three essays written about Van and his milieu—“Van,” “The Angel,” and “Harvest”—in How I Became One of the Invisible (Semiotext(e), 1992), by David Rattray, his friend from Dartmouth College and the editor of Lami.

3) An article in the New England Journal of Medicine (August 31, 1961), “Paroxysmal Nocturnal Hemoglobinuria: A Successful Imposter,” by James G. Gaither, M.D., who, as a medical student, was the first to correctly diagnose the rare blood disease from which Van would soon die. Van is the “22-year-old … graduate student in English literature” who serves as the basis of the “Case Report.”

4) A passing and incorrect listing of Van Buskirk in the chapter on “negro poetry” in American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (Herder and Herder, 1971) by Kenneth Rexroth (159).

Given the paucity of available information on Van Buskirk, Rexroth’s error isn’t quite as preposterous as it may first appear, and I’ve seen it perpetuated over the years in the odd reference book that lists Van as an African American poet. As far as I can tell, the mistake stems from the iconic black-and-white frontis photo of Van tipped into Lami and also reproduced in Paul Carroll’s The Young American Poets (Big Table, 1968). In the photo, which also accompanies this essay, Van stares at the camera from behind dark wraparound shades, something between a smirk and a sly grin on his face, while a young black woman—identified as “Freddie” in the frontis version—drapes her arms around him affectionately.

Even with his coif of dark curls, Van seems obviously white in this photo. But viewing it through the lens of Van’s poetry apparently led Rexroth to assume the poet was a very light-skinned black man. For the poems themselves display a singular preoccupation with black American experience, notably in the title character of Lami, whom editor David Rattray glosses in an editorial note as “Lami: Negro sometimes Oriental demon of uncertain sex[.]” Van wrote about the cultural issues his African American peers would address with increasing frequency as the ’60s unfolded. Here, for example, was a white poet in 1961 writing on the theme of hair-straightening; in the poem “Process,” he juxtaposes his own wonderment at the elaborate tonsorial effects with a final line of dialogue from a poor but proud black man: “‘who cd be ashamed of their own hair?’” (40).

“He would have really loved [being mistaken for a black man],” his girlfriend Martha Muhs suggests. When she met Van, in February 1961, he was living in a mixed household in the black section of St. Louis, and when he moved to the Bay Area he settled in a black neighborhood where downtown and West Oakland meet.

Van’s attraction to black culture seems part and parcel of an overall rejection of late ’50s/early ’60s mainstream American culture, an attitude that allies him with the Beats. As Rattray’s textual note suggests, not only is his character Lami racially ambiguous, but its gender and sexuality (and even its humanity) are also “uncertain.” As a poet, it seems, Van was drawn to transgressive figures, be they drug users, petty criminals, sexual deviants, or the weird Ariel-cum-Dr.-Sax persona of his title character.

*

Van Buskirk Skiing
Alden Van Buskirk Skiing

Alden Van Buskirk was born on July 3, 1938, in Rutland, Vermont, to Robert and Martha Elizabeth “Betty” Van Buskirk. He was the oldest of their three children. Though the surname is Dutch, the family’s ethnic makeup, according to his sister Lauren, is primarily Danish and English, with a hint of Irish. Their economic background was middle-class; Robert worked as secretary-treasurer of the local utility company, while Betty was a substitute teacher. An accomplished ice skater and skier in his teens, Van was at least partly motivated to enroll in Dartmouth in 1956 to join the ski team, though he had to accept a naval ROTC scholarship to afford to attend.

Van’s early undergraduate days were marked by two significant events: first, the death of his mother, in 1958, after a long battle with cancer. According to his friend Peter Kushner, Van spoke of the “terrible dreams” he had of her afterward, as recorded in his poem “from Forest Park fragments.” Later that winter he also experienced his first attack of paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH), though it would be two years before he’d receive a correct diagnosis for this extremely rare disease. As the word “paroxysmal” suggests, the attacks were sudden, violent, and painful. They were accompanied by severe vomiting and usually required hospitalization. According to the New England Journal of Medicine article that uses Van as a case study, “[T]he most typical presentation [of PNH is] abdominal pain, fatigue, weakness, anemia and dark urine,” all symptoms Van suffered. He alludes, for example, to the characteristic “black piss / in the morning bowl” (14) in Lami.

“If his disease hadn’t overtaken his physical strength, he might not have gone so thoroughly into poetry,” suggests John Ceely, a fellow poet and member of the Dartmouth ski team who befriended Van around this time. “He came to Dartmouth to be an athlete. He was still on the ski team, but he wasn’t doing that great, so he started putting more energy into poetry.”

During his senior year, Van’s fate as a poet was further sealed when he befriended David Rattray, a poet whom he’d met briefly during his freshman year. Rattray had returned to Dartmouth in 1960 after an extended European sojourn. This return occurred midway through a two-year teaching stint at Dartmouth by communist poet and perpetual nonconformist Jack Hirschman. Peter Kushner recalls the potent combination of these encounters.

“I think [Van’s] literary influences came mostly from Rattray,” Kushner says. “Rattray was extremely worldly. He’d gone to France and Germany and spoke seven or eight languages to some degree. Rattray had discovered Stefan Georg and people like that, Bouchner, Rilke, Verlaine and Rimbaud, Artaud, but not the Beats.”

“The Beats came to Dartmouth via Jack Hirschman,” Kushner continues. “When Jack came to Dartmouth, the first thing he did was have a poetry reading. Jack read from Mayakovsky, he read one of his own poems, and then he read ‘Howl,’ the whole thing with the footnote. The college had never heard anything like this.”

The impact of these encounters with Rattray and Hirschman can’t be overestimated, as they put Van in touch with both the early European avant-garde and the most contemporary American poetry of the period. Importantly, Hirschman turned Rattray and Van on to John Wieners, who would become Van’s favorite poet and an enduring influence.

*

According to his friends, Van wasn’t a particularly assiduous student in his early days at Dartmouth, but by the end he was a standout member of the English department, earning a graduate scholarship at Washington University in St. Louis. Judging from his appearance in St. Louis in September 1960, however, he didn’t seem to be preparing for an academic future. At a time when graduate school was more of a shirt-and-tie affair, Van, in Rattray’s words, “sauntered in in ink-stained khakis, a teeshirt full of holes, and barefeet in the filthiest tennis sneakers west of the Bowery” (14). The tone of Van’s letters to Ceely, in any case, suggests little interest in, and indeed a certain contempt for, pursuing graduate study. Acceptance of the scholarship may have been motivated more by the stipend and the necessity of access to medical care. By the end of that first month, he would meet James Gaither and receive the grim diagnosis of PNH, the then invariably fatal nature of which no doubt made studying for an advanced degree seem like an even greater waste of time.

But the final straw appears to have been his encounter with “a man recently freed from prison,” as Van puts it in his St. Louis–based “Tales”: Johnny Sherrill, a colorfully verbose con man “whose words were objects.” A white man who largely inhabited the black world of St. Louis, Sherrill essentially became a Neal Cassady–like figure to Van’s group of friends, though he lacked Cassady’s own literary/intellectual ambitions. Through Sherrill, Van would quickly enter a whole new world. By the end of the following month, Van would write to Ceely that “I am now living w/ a 19 yr old negro girl in an old, nearly empty hotel whose mgr. is a heroin connection. I seldom go to classes & pity the dead souls there.” According to Rattray, this “19 yr old negro girl,” Carol, was a prostitute, “eager to support him,” though Van “wanted her to quit turning tricks” (19). It’s not entirely clear how long they lived together, though he eventually left her after she gave him gonorrhea, which in turn sent him to the hospital with a severe PNH crisis.

Despite this setback, meeting Johnny Sherrill and Carol seems to have inspired Van to start writing the poems that comprise the “Lami in St. Louis” section of Lami. It’s clear that Van began “Lami in St. Louis” fairly immediately, telling Ceely in a letter of December 5–7, 1960, that he’s writing “fairy tales” which begin with the story of meeting Johnny and crossing the Mississippi into Illinois to an after-hours roadhouse called the Harlem Club. There Johnny unsuccessfully propositions a young transvestite for a threesome but is rebuffed. She has eyes only for Van.

But it’s late & just before we go she calls me over, says Come here “pretty boy” & I lean, she touches the soft glove to the nape curls & gently pulls me into her face, murmuring,
  “Give me some sugar, baby,”
  kisses lightly my cheek, I could just feel the outer edges of the lips grace the skin, without breath or pressure … (Lami 51)

The scene is at once literal autobiography—Rattray fleshes out more details in his essay called “Van”—and a symbolic journey into a realm outside of the American culture Van grew up in, complete with a guide, the crossing of a river boundary, and an initiatory kiss. “The idea of having sex with a boy was out of the question,” according to Rattray, who, by the time of his friendship with Van, was already openly bisexual. “However, what blew Van’s mind was that he could not only sit still for such a flirtation, but open his heart to it and be deeply moved by what he saw and felt in the stranger’s eyes, a love that to his amazement he found himself wholeheartedly accepting” (16).

Rattray’s point is worth noting here insofar as it illuminates the homosexual themes running through Lami and particularly in “Tales.” Though by all accounts heterosexual, Van exhibits a marked interest in gay street life in his poetry, and was quite evidently fascinated with John Wieners’s homosexuality and Rattray’s bisexuality. If his interest was, as Rattray suggests, “never consummated,” his sympathies were piqued, and it is only after this initiatory kiss that the persona of Lami emerges in the book. Influenced by both the style and the vampiric, Shadow-like title character of Kerouac’s Dr. Sax (Grove, 1959), the pointy-eared, black leather–winged Lami is a polymorphous figure collaging Van’s own experiences with Johnny’s and others’ into an ultimate transgressor. Lami stars in the 14 numbered “Tales” as well as in various subsequent poems in the collection.

In the spring of 1961, Van moved into a house at 459 Laurel Street with Johnny and his girlfriend, Freddie Quinn, the woman from the frontis photograph of Lami; her cousin Nackie; a student friend of Van’s named Gary Merritt; and others for varying durations. Though St. Louis was a segregated city, such interracial households were permitted, according to Pinky Kushner, a St. Louis native who met Van in a modern poetry class. “There were white people in the black neighborhood even then,” she says, “that had been there for generations.” Nonetheless, “the House,” as it’s invariably referred to among Van’s St. Louis friends, quickly became a hot spot for curious students and neighborhood residents alike.

“The House happened and everyone went to the House,” Pinky Kushner recalls. “That year Alden was in St. Louis; he was the center of attention. He collected all these things around him, and people just naturally gravitated there.”

One of those people was 19-year-old undergraduate Martha Muhs, who soon became his girlfriend.

“He was very charismatic, but in a calm way,” she says. “People would come to spend time with him because he was unusual. And Johnny was always sorta on, a naturally exuberant type of person. Alden was really entranced with his verbal abilities.”

Muhs provides tantalizing details of her time together with Van, many of which center on music. Their listening included Coltrane, Monk, and Miles Davis, cool jazz like Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, and less obvious figures like jazz-blues singer-pianist Mose Allison. The couple also caught Ray Charles live in St. Louis on April 2, 1961—Easter Sunday. Most memorably, she recalls accompanying Van to practice rooms at Washington University to hear him play, for, as Rattray also testifies, he was an astonishingly adept jazz pianist. Though Muhs never recorded Van, she possesses a copy of a tape made by his childhood friend Lisa Yeomans, which captures the poet running through Jerome Kerns’s “Pick Yourself Up” with such offhanded mastery it’s a wonder he didn’t pursue music instead.

“In Oakland, he was thinking of renting a piano and having it in our apartment,” Ceely recalls, “but then he finally said, ‘I don’t want to do it, because it would take away from my writing.’ He was too good as a pianist; he couldn’t just fiddle around.”

Alden Van Buskirk Playing Piano

AVB-pianomp3

Among Van’s friends, there’s some uncertainty about whether he dropped out of Washington University or completed his course work that year; his classroom attendance, in any event, was minimal, and he seems to have decided not to return well before the end of the academic year. Instead, he and Rattray decided to go “on the road” to Mexico, in order to live cheaply and write for an unspecified period. Though Van was leery of making firm commitments due to his disease, he and Muhs decided they would live together in New York City after his Mexican adventure. In mid-June 1961, having dropped out of Washington University, Muhs went to New York to find an apartment, while Van and Rattray began an amphetamine-fueled drive to El Paso, Texas, where they left their car, “crossed the border and caught a southbound bus out of Juárez” (Rattray 29).

*

Van Buskirk and Rattray’s adventures in Puerto Ángel, Oaxaca, Mexico, are extensively chronicled in How I Became One of the Invisible. It suffices to say here that they wound up leaving the country far earlier than anticipated, heading not east to New York but west to San Francisco, where Ceely and various other friends lived. But shortly after their late July arrival in the Bay Area, the tensions in Van and Rattray’s relationship came to a head and they quarreled, with the curious result that Rattray was sent packing to St. Louis to visit Van’s friends.

“Dave was a mentor, definitely, to Alden,” Muhs says, “but—not but, and, Dave was in love with him. Dave became a bit too much there when they were living together in San Francisco. It was overwhelming, and Alden said, ‘I can’t do this; you’re gonna have to go.’ I met him [Rattray] for the first time when he came back to New York, and there was no question he was tormented.” Though they remained in touch by letter, and planned to meet up back in New York City, Rattray would never see Van again.

*

When Van arrived in the Bay Area, John Ceely was living in San Francisco, but by September, the two poets had moved across the bay to a residential hotel at 2351 San Pablo Avenue in downtown Oakland. No one is sure why Van decided to linger in Oakland; my guess is that he was still “on the road,” not ready to return from his travels to settle down in New York with Muhs. And my sense from his poetry is that he fell in love with the place:

sirens in the night—
         the city is crying for her lost lovers
_______________________________________________
Broadway, Oakland—
                endless Army Stores, Western Swing
Bars, 40¢ movies the backdrop for a parade, no the orbit of
sailors apprentice hipsters & 2 bit hustlers.…
cool bodies circling in neon light—
         pure light of the spirit the senses’ live-wire ends
known in pot paranoia

[…]

                … a plate of carnival colors over the coast hills
whirls a saturn of rainbow stripes into eternity in the hands of
Wm Blake who guards the world tonight (Lami 15–16)

These lines from section 5 of the poem “Lami in Oakland” give a sense of the stimulation Van found in that city. Though the army stores and western swing bars are long gone, and movies now show in a multiplex, there remain downtown stretches of Broadway that decant a similar atmosphere today. The echo of “Howl,” and in back of that Whitman, in the rolling catalog of imagery isn’t the most typical of Van’s late work, but what is especially characteristic here is the way the city enters his writing in the aggregate. Whereas the people of St. Louis made a huge impression on him, here Oakland itself becomes a phantasmagoric being whose cryptic communications he receives like Aragon in Paris Peasant or Breton in Nadja.

In a sense, Oakland displaces the literary persona of Lami in “Lami in Oakland,” and in so doing puts Van in direct contact with himself: “dreamt this city Oakland from a school map,” as he writes in section 1, “but not this emptiness in myself” (13). But the last lines of section 5 show Van at his most intense and original; at such moments I feel the need to slow down lest the verbal momentum rush me past the elaborate, unstable image before it begins to form. The amount of ground he covers from this section’s limpid opening to its dense conclusion declares his sophistication and ability as a poet even at so young an age.

Another reason Van might have remained in Oakland was medical. En route to the Bay Area, as Rattray reports, Van was stricken with another attack of PNH. During his hospitalization he was referred to the Donner Laboratory, a semiautonomous clinic for nuclear medicine within the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory on the UC Berkeley campus. Here he met Tony Sargent, the “hip biophysicist” mentioned in section 3 of “Lami in Oakland,” who was studying under John Lawrence, director of the clinic and brother of Ernest Lawrence, inventor of the cyclotron and founder of the Lawrence Lab.

“Dr. Lawrence wanted me to build a whole body counter, for measuring variable levels of radioactivity in human subjects,” Sargent recalls. “We were studying leukemia and other diseases, particularly strange iron or blood diseases like PNH, using radioactive iron 59 to study how it was metabolized in the blood cells and how fast it was lost. The whole body counter measured the loss of iron over a long period of time.”

In a move that seems both characteristic of his desire to be a poet without the distraction of a job and indicative of his increasing anxiety about his health, Van signed on for this experimental research for a small stipend. During daily visits to the lab for tests, he and Sargent grew friendly, the talk soon turning to the biophysicist’s sideline research into LSD. What Van hoped Sargent could do was arrange for a guided LSD trip with a psychiatrist—as Alan Watts had written of—to help him prepare mentally and spiritually for death. Though Sargent was ultimately unable to do so, he did tell Van about a paper he’d read in German by Albert Hofmann, discoverer of LSD, concerning the use of morning glory seeds as a hallucinogen by certain native Mexican peoples.

“I figured if one ground up morning glory seeds and ate them, you’d have something like an LSD experience,” Sargent says, citing their lysergic acid amide (LSA) content. “I told this to Van, who proceeded to grind up the seeds, but he smoked marijuana with them, so it was a mixed experiment. But he had a very profound experience that he talks about in [Lami]. As far as I know, that’s the first published experience in English of morning glory seeds.”

The text in question—“9-17-61”—isn’t a poem so much as a letter to his friends in which Van writes, “I’ve lived my life a million times over in a few hours,” describing “the endless picture/ideograms that spell all knowledge, unlock forgotten nightmares, diabolic comic strip of old illusions running on the wrong reel too fast” (25). Despite the “terror” and “humility of weeping repentance,” he recommends the experience and gives a recipe for consuming the seeds.

In contrast to his life in St. Louis, Van’s time in Oakland was quiet and reflective, spent wandering the city with Ceely or in their apartment writing. And unlike his friendship with Rattray, his friendship with Ceely was uncomplicated and devoid of sexual or romantic tension. Their one dispute centered on Van’s uncharacteristic behavior when catching a ride to the clinic on the back of Ceely’s motor scooter. At stoplights the normally cool Van would grow livid, loudly cursing the drivers around them and disconcerting his laid-back friend.

“It’s clear to me now he knew he was going to die,” Ceely says, “and he felt outraged and swindled because he had this poetry talent, so he let it out that way.”

The extent to which Van was aware of his impending death isn’t fully known. Even as he was hospitalized in November 1961 with a final attack of PNH, he was making plans with Ceely to move to New York City, where Rattray and Muhs were expecting them. In December he booked a flight to Newark, New Jersey, for the 18th, insisting in the meantime that Ceely head there without him.

“Van always maintained the fiction that we were going to meet in New York, because he knew I was in denial that he could possibly die,” Ceely says. “And grief-stricken.”

The last of Van’s friends to see him alive was Tony Sargent, “about three or four days before he died.

“He already had severe septicemia, and he knew he was dying,” Sargent says. “From the way he talked the last time I met him, it was clear.”

On December 11, 1961, Alden Van Buskirk died of heart failure associated with PNH.

*

The epilogue to Van’s life that to some extent mitigates the tragedy of his early death was the creation of the book Lami. Edited by Rattray and collected from handwritten manuscripts in the possession of Van’s friends, Lami was first typed up by Clive Matson, an early enthusiast, who in turn got Herbert Huncke fired up about the poems. Huncke, after months of pestering, finally got Allen Ginsberg to take a look, and he was suitably impressed. He began sending the poems out to magazines, including Poetry, Evergreen Review, and City Lights Journal, demanding that they be published; and Ginsberg being Ginsberg, he was good at getting his way.

Armed with Ginsberg’s introduction, Ceely and Rattray persuaded Dave Haselwood and Andrew Hoyem of Auerhahn to print Lami in an edition of 1,000 copies. Lami has never been a considered a major Beat/San Francisco Renaissance book, but it has managed to hang on, the introduction and the press imparting a modicum of collectibility. In 2003 Claudio Molinari translated it into Spanish for Madrid’s Tf.Editores, but otherwise I find that even fans of Rattray tend not to know about it.

The other epilogue is the network of friendships for which Van served as a catalyst and which maintains itself today. I first tapped into this network when I started reading his work and had the good fortune to meet John Ceely, who, after living in New York City and rural Wisconsin, had returned to Oakland. But I hadn’t realized the full extent of Van’s network until this past December, when I participated in a reading marking the 50th anniversary of the poet’s death, held at poet David Highsmith’s Books & Bookshelves store in San Francisco.

What I expected to be a small gathering for an obscure poet turned out to be quite packed, with friends of Van from both his Dartmouth College and Washington University days. Several, like Martha Muhs and the Kushners, now lived in the Bay Area, but some, including the poet’s sister, Lauren Pike, had flown across the country just to attend. Though I’d been reading Van for a dozen years, I’d never quite grasped the magnetic, mischievous character that emerged that night from his letters and poems as well as his friends’ reminiscences (a video of the event, capturing the singular devotion of his friends, can be viewed here). I knew then that I needed to record some of the details of his life before they were lost to history, for though he died too young to reach anything like his full potential, Alden Van Buskirk managed to achieve a distinctive note as a poet, which is more than most practitioners ever attain. He deserves to be better known.

Originally Published: July 17, 2012

COMMENTS (1)

On August 12, 2012 at 2:53am Mark Weiss wrote:
Great job, Garrett. The event you mention was actually called
"Lami@50" and was initiated by it being 50 years since the poetry set
was written, not tied to the date of his passing per se. Matt Gonzalez,
the politician, visual artist and cultural arbiter was the one who
catalyzed the recent local interest, somehow connected to his interest
in Hirschman, one of Van's mentors. Ferlinghetti, by the way, also
visited Dartmouth in that era, to see Hirschman. Dartmouth teacher
Richard Eberhart actually attended the "Howl" reading in SF.

Van was an uber-elite four-event skier, a possible Olympic caliber
competitor.

The interesting question is how or why he went from NROTC to
Rimbaud.

I hope someone puts the work back in print, and/or teaches him in
modern lit or culture classes. Dartmouth should have a scholar-
athlete award for him, like their John E. Johnson journalism prize.

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Biography

Garrett Caples is the author of The Garrett Caples Reader (1999), Complications (2007), Quintessence of the Minor: Symbolist Poetry in English (2010), and Retrievals (2014). He's an editor at City Lights Books, where he curates the Spotlight poetry series and has worked on such books as Tau by Philip Lamantia/Journey to the End by John Hoffman (Pocket Poets #59) and When I Was a Poet by David Meltzer (Pocket Poets #60).  He is . . .

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