“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.
Garrett Caples is the author of The Garrett Caples Reader (1999), Complications (2007), Quintessence of the Minor: Symbolist Poetry in English (2010), Retrievals (2014), and Power Ballads (2016). He is an editor at City Lights Books, where he curates the Spotlight poetry series. Caples was also a contributing writer to theSan Francisco Bay Guardian and has coedited the Collected Poems of Philip...