The Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman
(City Lights, 2019)
Bob Kaufman is a poet; Bob Kaufman is a man steeped in a mythology sprinkled with a few facts. For many he exists as the man who wrote poems on newspaper margins, the man flowing with piled, jazz-infused visions as wife or friend transcribed his surrealistic rants, the man yelling poems at strangers parking their cars on North Beach street corners, the man repeatedly and repeatedly arrested on San Francisco streets, at times after being harshly beaten by the arresting officers, the man who took a vow of silence unbroken for eleven years. For me he began as the father of a long-forgotten toddler playmate. He was my parents’ friend who came to house parties and wreaked havoc. He was the author of a yellow-covered little book of poetry that held my father’s favorite poem, which he often quoted:
The first man was an idealist, but he died,
he couldn’t survive the first truth,
discovering that the whole
world, all of it, was all his . . .
He was the one who spoke, at least to my father and me, during his mythological, monkish, self-imposed silence. He was for me always most real on the page; he was for me, and remains for me, alive and vibrant as a poet whose truths continue to shine with a brilliance that even drugs, alcohol, and electroshock torture could not snuff out.
My memories of Bob Kaufman are few and fleeting and always in concert with my father. My father and I were walking towards Broadway. I think we had just left City Lights Bookstore. We were in North Beach to get a gift, birthday I expect, for my mother. As we hit Broadway there was Bob Kaufman leaning against a light pole. My father called out; Bob saw my father and remembered him and the two of them hugged and laughed. It had been years since they had last talked, but the ropes that bound them as Afro-diasporic brothers of fate, as comrades of 1950s North Beach streets, and as part of the small cloister of Black male artists and writers who haunted those alleys and bars, were as strong as ever. Bob asked after my mother, my brother, and then me. My father told him repeatedly that I was standing right there, that I was grown now. Bob chuckled when he finally understood and invited us to his small hotel room.
We walked a couple of blocks to the room, which was dark and sparse, and, sharing the bed while I perched on the one chair, the two of them talked in that shorthand way that only friends understand, a sigh here, a quiet laugh there, and an unspent tear on the other side. I was witness only. My father told Bob that I wrote poetry and was pretty good. Bob, as I remember, took no notice. We left and it seemed there was a certain sadness in my father’s goodbye.
A couple of years later I was given a featured reading spot at the long-demolished Coffee Gallery where Bob had often held court. My father, a pipe smoker at that point, had gone outside to fill a bowl and inhale a few lungfuls of aromatic smoke. As he stood in the doorway, Bob walked up. My father asked Bob to come in and hear me read. Bob sipped on the beer my father had bought him and sat through a few of the opening readers until I was called to the stage. I signed the back wall with much humility upon seeing up close all the names of former featured readers etched large and small, printed and cursive, on this monument to North Beach poetics. Then I read my poetry, sincere but raw, infused with the passion of the ’70s, with a Black Arts spin and a young romantic love compulsion. Bob drank beer with my parents and waited until I sat back down. He gave me his approval, “Good stuff” or some such phrase, and left the place. I was absolutely buzzing with excitement. Just his presence, his quiet support, was my ticket to continue to ride the wild and sometimes tortuous seas of poetry.
That was the last time I remember seeing Bob in the flesh. But his words, his poems, had been my companion through my lonely and misfitting teens. I had carried Golden Sardine and Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness from San Francisco to Hong Kong, and then onto Kathmandu, Nepal, Kabul, Afghanistan, and Istanbul, Turkey, only to arrive in Paris, where I spent a couple of weeks working and sleeping at George Whitman’s bookstore, Shakespeare and Co. One day, after finishing my couple of hours of chores to pay for my bed for the night, I came downstairs to see a young Parisian reading Bob’s Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness. I was amazed. “You like Kaufman?” I asked in my limited French, rich with vocabulary and impoverished with grammar. “Yes,” he answered in English, “he is the best.” He said something about Rimbaud and Baudelaire, and I said, yes, I knew some of their poetry, too. I asked him if he had read Golden Sardine. “He has another book?” the young man asked in surprise. “Yes, I have a copy upstairs.” He appealed to me to let him read it. “I can’t lose it,” I told him. “It has carried me over half the world.” He promised me that he would not move from that spot. I brought him the book and he sat for the next couple of hours reading it and then returned it to me with effusive thanks. I was intrigued. In Paris Bob Kaufman was literary hero while in America he was mostly unknown, and when remembered, it was mostly mythology and lies. The Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman presents the real Bob Kaufman, a man who lived and spoke through his poems.
In April of 1925, as the seventh of thirteen children, Bob Kaufman was born of mixed ancestry, in New Orleans, Louisiana, with an Afro-Caribbean mother from Louisiana and a Jewish father of German and French ancestry, at a time when interracial marriage was illegal. Maybe it was that heritage—hewn in a city that was so racially conflicted and culturally rich, that heritage nurtured in a city where his Martinican grandmother’s Vodun, the Catholicism of his mother, and the Judaism of his father—that taught him that the world was a complex place where love and spirit, and faith and reality, held central and often conflicting roles. Bob Kaufman was steeped in diverse traditions before he boarded a Merchant Marine ship as a teenager and spent six years sailing the world, and, in stories he told, survived four shipwrecks while circumnavigating the globe several times, tasting exotic foods, reading a breadth of literature, seeing wide swaths of art, and learning a global history from the underside up.
What is most exciting about this volume of poetry is that it shows that Kaufman cannot be fit into one box. He certainly is a Beat poet, although you will rarely find his name or his seminal role listed in articles and books about the Beats. But then he was not “beat” in the meaning attributed to Jack Kerouac, beat down and beat back, rather he was of the beat and through the beat like the jazz poetry that he performed. He was a Beat poet who in his poem “Oct. 5th, 1963”—which takes the form of a letter to the editors of the San Francisco Chronicle—noted that:
It is not the beat played by who is beating the drum. His is a noisy loud
one, the silent beat is beaten by who is not beating on the drum, his
silent beat drowns out all the noise, it comes before and after every
beat, you hear it in beatween, its sound is
Bob Kaufman, Poet
He can rightfully be considered a surrealist poet, as the French like to say, the “Black Rimbaud.” After all he did “acknowledge the demands of Surrealist realization” (“Sullen Bakeries of Total Recall”) and then again what other kind of poet would write, as in “Bagel Shop Jazz”:
Shadow people, projected on coffee-shop walls.
Memory formed echoes of a generation past
Beating into now.
Nightfall creatures, eating each other
Over a noisy cup of coffee.
Mulberry-eyed girls in black stockings,
Smelling vaguely of mint jelly and last night’s bongo
drummer . . .
But I think what Kaufman wrote, what Kaufman orated, what he be-bopped out of his brain and soul, was not more than real to him, but simply real. It was what he saw and how he saw it. When he asks, “Would You Wear My Eyes?” he doesn’t just ask the question, he dares the reader. Are you willing to see a “face . . . covered with maps of dead nations” (“Would You Wear My Eyes?”)? Do you want to discover, like he did in his “Jail Poems,” that:
All night the stink of rotting people,
Fumes rising from pyres of live men,
Fill my nose with gassy disgust,
Drown my exposed eyes in tears.
He offers both critiques and applause to artists in a broad range of fields—Dylan Thomas, Baudelaire, Billie Holiday, Bartók, Picasso, Mondrian, Hart Crane, Lorca, Camus, and others—letting us see and know the many wells from which he drank.
For Kaufman there are no lines between poetry that spews from the evening news—the bottomless valley of forgetting from whence he lifts Caryl Chessman, and sings dirges to the children of Hiroshima, and questions Camus in hard, biting questions about the writer’s colonial position on Algeria—or poetry that echoes with choruses of music—mostly, but not only, jazz and blues—or poetry that grows from a tree of spirituality rooted in Buddhism but aware of the breadth of Christianity and the depths of traditional African religion.
I remember my father telling me a story about Bob calling him and telling him that he needed to come to North Beach the next day and help build a Buddhist temple. My father tried to tell Bob he had other obligations, but Bob pressed him, and in the end my father found himself with a team Bob had organized helping to build a Buddhist temple in San Francisco. Maybe that effort and his years of silence is why Buddhism is the cloak most people wrap Kaufman in. No doubt he had a Buddhist practice, but there has always been a unity reflecting a breadth of crossroads to and through faith in his poetical vision. And when he speaks directly to God, not only his humor but also an idea of spirituality that is inclusive of more than Buddhism is intact:
It’s all right fellows, it’s just a joke,
you had me scared for a moment God, i thought you were serious,
i was beginning to believe that this was really your idea of life,
i know second fifth, but you made it sound so unbelievable,
You’re the only one in this whole big universal gin mill, believe me god, who could get away with it, even that oldest boy of yours
& yet even he, your own
fleshlessness & bloodlessness, was helpless when it came to dirty jokes.
(“I Wish . . .”)
Or in his “Heavy Water Blues” when he notes:
When reading all those thick books on the life of god,
it should be noted that they were all written by men.
It is perfectly all right to cast the first stone,
if you have some more in your pocket.
From Golden Sardine and Solitudes through the Abomunist Manifesto and its later addendum through The Ancient Rain, from gems of previously uncollected poems through Beatitudes (a magazine that Kaufman cofounded and edited with Allen Ginsberg, John Kelly, and William Margolis), this volume lets Kaufman reveal his life and legacy, his strengths and weaknesses, even as he surveys America, the planet, and indeed the universe with humor, satire, passion, and a lucidity born of jazz riffs and African rhythms. When all is said and done, Kaufman is a poet of the world; mythologies and histories hold court in his poems.
Bob Kaufman will always be surrounded by myth and mystery. He was in San Francisco first in 1946 as a maritime sailor and returned some years later. But was it with his brother Donald in 1950, as some have said, or with Burroughs and Ginsberg whom he met in New York, as others aver? Thus, if one wants to know Bob Kaufman, it is best to look not in the filigree memories and scraps of official papers that can be offered, but in his poems. His life is laid out there.
Whether I am a poet or not, I use fifty dollars’ worth
of air every day, cool.
In order to exist I hide behind stacks of red and blue
(“Afterwards, They Shall Dance”)
It is in his poems you find his love for his son Parker, his second wife Eileen, and several other friends and family members who shared his road if only for a season. In his poems you find Kaufman
Seeing only the holdings
Inside the walls of me,
Feeling the roots that bind me,
To this mere human tree
Kaufman is also unabashedly Black or, in the fading lingo of his times, Negro. He proclaims who he is but seems to also magnify to become more than just his person, as in “Oregon” where he chants:
You are with me Oregon,
Day and night, I feel you, Oregon.
I am Negro, I am Oregon.
Oregon is me, the planet
Kaufman is indeed a Black Beat and wants this to be remembered, wants his sense of self to be remembered. I don’t doubt Kaufman heard people repeatedly say, “I don’t see color,” which loosely translated means, “I don’t see you.” Bob Kaufman demands to be not just heard but seen and to have his people seen, as in “Untitled”:
THE SUN IS A NEGRO.
THE MOTHER OF THE SUN IS A NEGRO.
One wonders if Kaufman was always a poet. True, he told some that he studied briefly at New York’s the New School in the 1940s where he met William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, with whom he traveled to San Francisco, but this was likely part of the mythology he created. (Ginsberg, for example, said they met in 1959.) Is it more likely that he became a poet much earlier, while he walked the streets of New Orleans, while he sailed the planet’s numbered seas? Although he was dead at the relatively young age of 60 after living nearly half of his life in San Francisco, he left an impressive body of work, albeit small in the number of pages, nearly all of which can be found in this volume. Here one finds the familiar and the more recently unearthed and translated, the deeply personal and the adamantly political, the profoundly spiritual and wryly philosophical, all braided with cosmic and comic realities of our universe. This book is a reflection of Kaufman’s genius, a welcome gathering of his songs and chants, a needed compendium of the depth of his heart and the breadth of his knowledge and the humility of his spirit.
When Kaufman speaks in “Dolorous Echo” of holes in skin and hairs on head that won’t stay dead ending with “When I die, / I won’t stay / Dead,” he speaks a truth that we can be grateful for. Alive and in full verse, his poems can be found here revealing his life, his soul, his prayers, and his reflections on our planet and universe in language that reads as vibrantly today as they were when he spat them out, filling the ears of all who would listen.
You can, of course, simply read this book, poem to poem, and become immersed in the rhythms, the emotions, the insights, the songs. But I recommend you put some music in back as you read. Play some Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, go find that Billie Holiday, discover or rediscover that Coltrane, and not only some Ray Charles but some gut-bucket blues, and slip in a bit of Bartók to better hear the muses who fed his soul. And then prepare to take a journey that climbs mountains and may dangle you over dangerous cliffs, will lift you upwards towards the stars and drop you back into the brutal reality that is America, before it sets you free in the wondrous possibilities that inhabit our universe.
“Eternal Poet” by devorah major, from THE COLLECTED POEMS OF BOB KAUFMAN. Copyright ©2019 by devorah major. Reprinted with the permission of City Lights Books