Because He Was Flesh
Frank MacShane, the biographer of Raymond Chandler, was the first one to introduce me to Edward Dahlberg. He gave me his book Because I Was Flesh and then, when I was finished, he gave me his address so I could write a fan letter. I had never done such a thing before. It was 1965. I was twenty-four. Dahlberg answered me immediately and for a couple of years I would receive letters from him that were both solicitous and patriarchal. In a certain sense these letters changed the course of my thinking life.
Dahlberg, who was said to be the originator of the proposition that one perception must immediately lead to the next—a proposition that drove American poetics from after WWII on—was not a poet unless you call a highly-charged, iambic, metaphorical prose "poetry." Some people call Moby-Dick a poem. I call Because I Was Flesh a poem as well as Dahlberg's less known book, Bottom Dogs. Perhaps it is simply a term of respect for those who push language to its limit.
Dahlberg left a burn mark on whomever he met; he branded his students and friends and then abandoned them as his mother had for a time abandoned him. He even broke off with the other priapic genius Charles Olson over the value of Moby-Dick. Dahlberg wrote that "Moby-Dick is gigantology, a tract about a gibbous whale and fifteen or more lawless seamen, who are alone, by choice, though they are together." He was against Melville, who may have been too strong an influence.
He grew up in Missouri, the son of a lady barber. And in order to get a flavor of the man one must read lines like these, describing the orphanage where he spent childhood time:
They were a separate race of stunted children who were clad in famine. Swollen heads lay on top of ashy uniformed orphans. Some had oval or oblong skulls; others gigantic watery occiputs that resembled the Cynocephali described by Hesiod and Pliny. The palsied and the lame were cured in the pool of Bethesda, but who had enough human spittle to heal the orphans' sore eyes and granulated lids.
Dahlberg talked and wrote like this. Unlike Charles Olson, whom he'd met at Harvard and whose work would always return to postwar Eurpoean philosophy and American politics, the autodidactic Dahlberg had identified with the proletarian underground since the twenties—and with ancient texts; he went into seven years of withdrawal from writing to study these. His first book, Bottom Dogs, had an introduction by D.H. Lawrence. After his withdrawal, he renounced his former self, his politics, everyone he knew, almost all men who aspired to write, and his early works.
In a letter written to me in December, 1966, he wrote:
Now, you can't admire Tolstoi along with Joyce, Jane Austen and Henry James. That's the usual academic pother of the day. Should you have understood Tolstoi you won't be able to read the famous rubbish of James, Joyce and Austen. You must learn how to expurge what is foolish, bad garbage; otherwise you'll never find those values you long for and should possess. Now, I know it is well-nigh impossible to give people good advice, particularly when you've got no doctrine or dogma to go along with it. But just take from an experienced worm of prose style that this kind of chaotic and amorphous thinking will be a fell obstacle to your own ripening.
We met in cafes in New York and once at Elaine's where he was disgusted by what he saw. I was proud to be with him, my secret teacher, and only Frank MacShane shared my interest, my desire to please him. He sent me a list of writers I was instructed to read by June, 1967. This is that list, verbatim:
Osiris by Wallis Budge
Egypt by Maspero
The Book of Job by Morris Jastrow
The Song of Songs
The Gentle Cynic
The Voyage of the Beagle by Darwin
L'Amour by Stendhal
Physiology of Marriage by Balzac
Enquiries into Plants by Theophrastes
The History of Greece
Greek Poets by John Addington Symonds
Lives of the Greek Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius
Last Essays by Eric Gill
Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion by Jane Harrison
The Goncourt Journals
Imaginary Conversations by Landor
And later he handed me a further list:
Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy
Sir Thomas Browne
Twelve Caesars by Suetonius
Animals and Birds by Buffon
Les Characteres by Lydell
Love of the Nymphs by Porphyry
Gil Blas by Le Sage
Dahlberg had no interest in mystical thinking. Myth was good, but best was the point of view of the naturalist and the anthropologist. I read some of the above, but concealed from him my other reading (then mostly European fiction in translation—Montale, Camus, Duras). He would have excoriated me in ways I couldn't handle. I was a sucker for bullies. I submitted, I even married them, but I didn't grovel or let it go on too long.
My friendship with Dahlberg ended bitterly. He chased me around his apartment on Rivington Street with his pants down, having locked the door from the inside, and I had to leap out a window to get away from him. My last letter from him was a racist diatribe against my marriage and the wasting of my "sweet, honeyed flesh."
What I received from him, before this event, was invaluable: the sense of the writer's life as a religious vocation. You had to protect yourself from Philistines, and read what he would call "ethical" writing. That is, writing that is so conscious of potential falsehoods, contradictions, and exaggerations in its grammar, it avoids becoming just one more symptom of the sick State. Dahlberg told me to take a vow of poverty if I was serious about my work. He believed in writing from the heart, not the head, and he insisted on seeking a physicality in language that was palpable. This was his politics, he who had been a card-carrying Communist, and to this day I believe he was right. I was like one of his orphans, starved for truths that he gave me:
Though all day long nothing was in the ailing minds of the orphan-asylum Ishmaels but the cry for food, what these mutes ask for was never given. O Pharisee, when will you learn that we never came to your table for the gudgeons and the barley loaves?
Fanny Howe is the author of more than 20 books of poetry and prose. Howe grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and studied at Stanford University. “If someone is alone reading my poems, I hope it would be like reading someone’s notebook. A record. Of a place, beauty, difficulty. A familiar daily...