A Philosophy of Surrender
Robbie Dewhurst on David Rattray
The first time I read How I Became One of the Invisible I was waiting on a delayed flight at the Des Moines International Airport. It was Wednesday, Thanksgiving week, 9 or 10 P.M. A snowstorm in Chicago (or somewhere) was showing no signs of slowing as it poured into its third hour. I was tired. My other out-of-state friends had skipped class and fled campus a day or two earlier, but I’d stuck around out of reluctant deference to the rather strict attendance policy observed in my final MWF course, Seminar in American Poetry II. If you missed more than twice, I think you could fail or something. The airport’s only terminal was pretty empty by then—me and a small handful of other people missing connections, a few humming laptops. The floors had been swept, and metal gates pulled down in front of the gift shop (pig-shaped key chains, t-shirts and postcards picturing mutant-sized corn) and eatery (lukewarm pan pizzas, $6.00 hot dogs). I was nowhere remarkable and nothing was moving. Something is happening, Van says. Just tune in on it, you’ll pick up. I fell in love with the book pretty much right away.
How I Became One of the Invisible is a book about traveling. On its surface, of course, the text is a simple collection of carefully-written, intricately-detailed, first-person narratives, prose accounts of a single poet’s multiple journeys into, within, and back out of different foreign territories: uncharted geographic, literary, and emotional spaces. But somehow travel narrative doesn’t really feel right as a label here; David’s stories always seem to go somewhere beyond that. Far beyond the aorist, beyond the what happened. Marc Thivolet’s comments on Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, cited in here by Rattray, apply just as well at the late end of the century to Rattray’s own stories, to these prose productions of this other strangest-of-poets. Like Gilbert-Lecomte’s soberly unfinished verses, Rattray’s stories are nothing less than “road signs which are meaningful only to someone on the road.” Certainly, “they are not for stationary reading.” How I Became One of the Invisible is a guidebook.
Not really knowing what else to do with myself after I graduated college that spring, I went to Puerto Angel. I was relieved to find it feeling, 55 years on, pretty much the same way Rattray discovered and described in it 1961. There is a single proper hotel here now, and a handful of spare posadas. In early June, though, everything was vacant; the few tourists in town seemed to be staying 4 miles up the road at the late-hippyish, sometimes-nudist Zipolite beach, and several of Puerto Angel’s relatively-new restaurants and lodgings were closed completely (it wasn’t usually clear if for the season, or forever). Collis and Jones’s nine-hundred-page Blue Guide devotes a mere sentence to this “still unspoiled resort, discreetly grown from a fishing village,” and describes the incredible rural road out from Oaxaca City in only a bit more detail. At 12km your second-class bus will pass by Coyotepec, a small craft-industrial village popular with tourists for its barro negro pottery; at 32km the town of Ocotlán de Morelos, where the two-story convent of Sto Domingo, built in 1555, has in this century been turned into a jail. Though it has since been paved, windy Méx. 175 still feels like little more than “a ribbon of mud strung between curtains of fog and sleet” as it twists high up into the mountains, reaches up and above the clouds, and falls way back down back into the thick jungle. Somewhere around Candelárias I thought I saw a woman selling psilocybe-rich mushrooms on the roadside, advertised by a brightly-painted homemade sign. Pedro, a middle-aged U.S. ex-pat I meet my first night in town, has been visiting Puerto Angel off and on since 1967. He is disappointed when I suggest to him that two American kids lived in a palm-roofed shack in the brush a few meters west of Playa Panteon briefly in the summer of 1961. He’s always thought he got here first. When I ask if Puerto Angel is very different today from the 1960s, he says it isn’t, and then thinks and tells me that I should realize: “In 1961 coming here was a different thing. It was an adventure. It was serious. You could die.”
Rattray was lying perhaps a little less than he have thought when he told friends the summer after finishing at Dartmouth that he was living off capital inherited from “whaling ancestors.” In their own different ways, the stories in this book are all lucid testimonials to the bleary-eyed health of a rich, relatively-subterranean line of American literature—the beat tradition, we might as well call it, that begins not in the 1950s with a small coterie of Ivy League graduates, hangers-on, and transplants west, but a full hundred years earlier (at least), in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, with that original, culture-critical “mariner, and renegade and castaway,” Herman Melville. (The scattered roots of this bloodline reach even further back than that, to the early nineteenth-century pulp-fictional adventure writers that sometimes-poet consumed as a kid, people like John Lloyd Stephens). I am thinking of “beat” here less as an adjective or noun, than as a verb—not as a kind of superlative, pseudo-spiritual shorthand (not really “beatific,” or “beatitude”), but in the sense of its actual, now-antiquated, usage as a piece of vagabond slang. Beating the rails. This is writing in the active participle, a literature of escape, of uncalculated risks and perilous investments. A literature of life-or-death journeys to the outside.
The outside of what? Of America itself. An outside to the whole fucking “wasteful, exploitive, murderously hypocritical, witless, Leave-it-to-Beaver, Dairy-Queen-slurping” thing, as Alden delicately puts it here. In 1961 David and Van were coming of literary age just a bit after the now-canonized 1950s “Beats,” and to me they always seem to have more in common with Melville and his cast-out, erudite Ishmael than with Kerouac and Co. anyways (it’s safe, though, I think, to admit William Seward Burroughs as an exception to this rule). How I Became One of the Invisible is arranged in rough chronological order, and Chris Kraus rightly puts the Van, Puerto Angel stories first: through actually written much later in life, these journalized literary productions of “1961” seem to me the author’s somewhat-formal attempt to document his artistically formative baptism-by-fire of sorts. Reading through this book in its given order, every major literary concern that comes to preoccupy Rattray’s late work—and I am including here, even, some of the unique concerns of the new material in this volume, the very final texts ever written by David—feels foregrounded in these first stories. It is no small matter that when Rattray set out On the Road after Dartmouth, he did so not with the relatively-modest designs of hitchhiking across these great United States in mind, but desired, rather, to actualize a much more serious fantasy: to go fast and stop no short of finding that long-fabled western “edge of America,” what Van calls “the jumping-off place.” He wanted out, the Pacific Ocean.
Surely this was radical, but there is also a history here—something, actually, of an unmistakable American literary pastime. In going west, to the ocean, David and Van were tuning in on a narrative they had read over and over again all their lives: a travel narrative, an adventure narrative and, most importantly, an escape narrative. The story is so embedded in American letters it is a kind of discourse, one about identity and the politics of location, that traces back even a few months before Melville’s November 1851 launch of Moby-Dick and its Pacific-bound Pequod, to that other early nineteenth-century U.S. beat (not Whitman, who does not arrive until ’55), Henry David Thoreau.
On 23 April 1851, Thoreau debuted a new lecture to an audience at Massachusetts’s Concord Lyceum, “Walking, or the Wild.” The naturalist envisioned nothing less than the en masse recuperation of a glorious, mythical “Wild” America—a “savage,” undisciplined America, a fiction that was already losing utility in the cultural imagination. It is an America we still easily recognize. At moments, Thoreau’s vision sounds a startlingly close echo of Melville’s own dissident-patriotic fantasies, of a nation whose domestic hypocrisy and foreign terrorism he harshly rebuked, yet also dreamed in which “Shakespeares” were daily “being born on the banks of the Ohio” (Melville’s 1850 review of his own poet-best-friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne). This is Whitman’s America, too, where from, Thoreau speculatively imagines, a poet may soon hail who will “transplant” words “to his page with earth adhering to their roots . . . whose words were so true and fresh and natural that they would appear to expand like buds at the approach of spring, though they lay half-smothered between two musty leaves in a library.” This is a country where even the people’s hearts “shall correspond in breadth and depth and grandeur to our inland seas.” This is an America, finally, Thoreau softly adds at the end of his speech, where “no fugitive slave laws are passed.”
Fantasies of apocalypse—the White Whale, the Civil War, the Cold War—almost always seem to be the dark underside of this now-familiar, stylized and characteristically-beat national vision. Mythic love of country aside, “Walking” is ultimately a very hasty imperative for escape. “Every walk is a sort of crusade,” Thoreau writes. We must “go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels.” Walking is going “Wild,” a mainline injection of spontaneity into a too-disciplined national body, a sort of full-scale deOedipalization of the country at large, and “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” In this sometimes-underground literary history, there is only ever one meaningful trajectory, though the territory is dangerous. Go west, Thoreau implores, “before the evil days come.” As he puts it,
The Atlantic is a Lethean stream, in our passage over which we have had an opportunity to forget the Old World and its institutions. If we do not succeed this time, there is perhaps one more chance for the race left before it arrives on the banks of the Styx; and that is the Lethe of the Pacific, which is three times as wide.
A century later, a mere fifteen years before Rattray would push Thoreau’s imperative south(west)ward, into Mexico and one more final outpost, Puerto Angel, Charles Olson, too, would intuit the same high, escapist valence of this monster-in-the-closet ‘piece’ of national geography. In his certifiably work-of-genius, 1947 monograph on Moby-Dick, this other beat poet christens Van’s “jumping-off point” as a still-relevant concern for a new generation of literary cast-outs and renegades: “The Pacific is, for an American, the Plains repeated, a twentieth century Great West.”
This is the logic that Rattray is turned onto when he sets out in 1961, with plans of staying in Pureto Angel for a couple of years and “writing books.” His unsarcastic indictment of the teaching profession (“nothing better than a guild for the transmission for established values”), echoes Thoreau’s brief preface to “Walking”: “There are enough champions of civilization; the minister, and the school-committee, and every one of you will take care of that.” Rattray and Van are not wide-eyed Dharma Bums, but disoriented refugees. They are “escapees from reform school,” cast outs, exiles—from McCarthy’s America, and from its attendant crew-cut, skirt-and-blouse wearing youth army. Faced with Cold War-era America, a world of tidy binaries only moments away from the “already arriving Garbage Apocalypse” it deserves, the two newly-minted Dartmouth grads choose to walk, to exit stage west. Again, Thoreau: “Perchance, when, in the course of ages, American liberty has become a fiction of the past, — as it is to some extent a fiction of the present, — the poets of the world will be inspired by American mythology.”
Washing up in Mexico, though, Rattray does not find the escape he had hoped for. There is a palpable, growing sense of discomfort in the Puerto Angel stories, as the adventure narratives and colonial fantasies that have been directioning the author’s voyage begin to lose local traction. Rattray has gone far but not gotten away. The Cold War carries on in Puerto Angel, albeit in unusual places—in the flickering, false-starlight of perpetually-orbiting Sputnik, in half-hallucinations triggered by children crawling in beach sand before a film projector, in the microfascism of a local police commander. A cold sweat seems to break in his text as Rattray encounters firsthand one of late capitalism’s more simultaneously insidious and banal effects: the endless reproduction of the center at the margins. In the acid scene, all fantasies of a pristine, new world dry up as the beautiful wild jungle settles into the comic-grotesque, into horrors that start reading more like creations of Candice Linn than G.A. Henty. An acute metaphor for the relevancy of poetry itself, Van is still dying.
Walking is ultimately not about escape—because there is none. In a world in which there has ceased to be an outside to capital, what kind of meaningful outside to America can there be? Walking, rather, is about the one thing the poet-subject can do: creatively, riskily reposition themselves. While Thoreau is using the verb literally, the critical move of his essay is really the application of a literary metaphor to real life; with “Walking,” the essayist is, in 1851, working very closely towards the twentieth-century Russian Formalist concepts of defamiliarization and open orientation.1 Walking, things start to look different. The landscape changes, sedentary habit and prevailing political modes are displaced, new vistas of sanctuary and techniques of resistance emerge.
And it is precisely here, in this wild place, that Rattray makes his most original literary moves. Despite the rising undercurrent of anxiety, a momentary “interval of lucidity” settles upon the beach shortly after the Commander’s ‘experiment.’ In this eye of the storm, the young, would-be poet suddenly looks up from his walk to deliver a lucid stream of cultural critique. Breaking stride with 50s-generation Beats, Rattray engages conservative New Critical literary codes less on the strata of syntax (Ginsberg’s long, Whitmanian strophes, Kerouac’s jazz-imitative run-ons and Olson’s projective verse) or content (Ginsberg’s polymorphously perverse “millions of genitals”), than scholarship. In a radical violation of New Criticism’s pathological fidelity to and hermetic sealing of The Text, Rattray at once historicizes his and Van’s Pacific trip, their “whole enterprise.” In one pop-Foucaultian, genealogical move, Rattray forever transcends the traditional beat project as he becomes aware of its own structural limitations:
it occurred to me that our journey to the edge of the world was just a copy of something we had been reading and seeing movies about ever since childhood. The white adventurer who goes to an exotic land, usually some tropical hellhole with dark-skinned people and a cast of characters evolving from G.A. Henty and the Tom Swift books through Bowles, B. Traven, and on to Burroughs, in search of buried treasure, gold, diamonds, drugs, the secret of life, what have you. After many adventures, the hero grabs the goods and hightails it home. Many fail (The Treasure of Sierra Madre, for instance, or Rimbaud’s attempt to get rich off gun-running and the slave trade), but others make a go of it. Would we be among the successful ones? I rather doubt it.
The emphasis at the end of the above passage is mine —for me, these two sentences, spoken in the third consecutive story in here, continue to resonate throughout the entire remainder of this collection’s text. I think they hold a sort of non-totalizing critical skeleton key to Rattray’s writing at large. (Though epiphany is a rather old-fashioned literary-critical term, throughout his life Rattray seems preoccupied by such moments of recognition, a fascination succinctly expressed in the long title-poem of what would sadly be his only collection of poetry, “Opening the Eyelid”). This passage of text seems to mark, literally, a passageway for Rattray—the “invisible hoop” he posits contra Van’s “edge of America” fantasies, a suspended, liminal moment in the poet’s early creative life. Realizing that their chosen escape vector is stopped-up, that the whole affair is really turning out to be little more than an imitation of “a cliché in the collective fantasy life of the imperialist nation we hail from,” something happens to Rattray here. His resolve actually strengthens; he decides to step on the gas. Instead of returning to the American world, as a travel-weathered young poet selling his tale or as anything else, Rattray decides to go further in—further to the point of, say, almost certain death ripping off one of the country’s most powerful drug cartels in Nochistlán. In fact, death looms everywhere in How I Became One of the Invisible, a constant presence that serves as an index of the high valence of investments like this one made so many times.2 Rattray will keep walking, to the point of no return; he will commit to his own clichéd metaphors in sincere, untried ways. The serious costs of this turn to the self-destructive are clear, but there is a significant purchase here too: the alchemical possibility of forging a different mode of existence, of fully transposing a literary metaphor onto the terms of a real, actual life. Sinking with the ship here represents a radical turn, a movement towards a really wild kind of existence in a stupid society damned and double-bound by cults of celebrity and surveillance. Disappearance. I think of Sylvère Lotringer’s words (the ever-absent interviewer, someone who in this sense I read as one of Rattray’s few practicing contemporaries), “nothing is less autonomous than an ego.” Rattray himself puts it slightly differently a little later in “The Angel,” articulating that quality he finds so appealingly embodied in Oriental architecture. “A philosophy of surrender rather than one of conquest and redemption.” Becoming invisible.
And so it is from here that the rest of this book departs. After very nearly dying in Mexico, Rattray washes up in St. Louis weary and still willfully lost—something of a faint echo of the once-again-orphaned Ishmael, riding into the wandering Rachel’s loving arms on a loose piece of wreckage (and here it is not irrelevant, either, to remember Ishmael’s macabre original reason for going to sea, as “a substitute for pistol and ball”). (Van, for his own part, ends up in California—not insignificantly reading, on his deathbed, Melville’s Pierre, the destitute author’s last proper novel, an uneven horror story written in the immediate wake of Moby-Dick’s commercial failure about a young, bright-eyed poet’s rapid self-destruction in the face of a cruel and absurd universe.)3 Eventually Rattray made his way through graduate programs at the Sorbonne and Harvard, and sometime in the late 60s finally settled down to make a home, more or less for the rest of his life, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He continued to write his own poetry a little, but mostly spent his time working as a translator, and nursing developing heroin and alcohol dependencies. Although in one place, Rattray never stopped traveling, and these new pastimes are, if anything, strong metaphors for that. The author’s subsequent sojourns draw him still further on, into all of these stories’ various realms unknown, and quickly out of American literature altogether. I find Rattray always faithful to his original premises, forged adhoc over a couple of weeks in Puerto Angel: he walks on with conviction and abandonment, creating new paths where there are none (the underground-canonization of so many strange poets abandoned by Literary History) and upsetting the usual lay of the landscape where there are (the humility and transparency at every turn, at appraising the futility of poetry in really preparing him or anyone for death, in his wonderfully frank declaration of his reasons for translating Antonin Artaud.) He is never afraid of getting dangerously close to his subjects; a true Thoreauvian, he is never afraid “of getting lost in the woods.” There is a story that during these years (late 60s-early 80s) Rattray blamed his lack of literary success on a disagreement he’d had with Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso over an article he had written as an undergraduate for The Nation on visiting Ezra Pound (in 1957, already a practicing travel writer). David had been honest about Pound’s anti-Semitism, which, as the story goes, angered Ginsberg and Corso, who 10 years later did their influential best to ensure that Rattray was excluded from the hippest circles of the NYC poetry scene (making the 50s Beats, like David’s brother’s childhood friends, just another ‘in-group to which he was denied access’). Whether this is true or not (and who knows if it is), another reality is that David probably just didn’t have the chops at this point—if he was writing at all during his junky years, it probably wasn’t the best poetry. One of the greatest tragedies of David’s untimely death in 1993 was that he had only just started becoming himself, the poet he had always wanted to be. He was 10 years sober at the time, and only 10 years into a late productive period of hard, serious work on his writing. Instead of the usual couple chapbooks, he’d published 2 tiny collections in the 80s in the even-more-invisible literary medium of the expensive, small-run artist’s book. Opening the Eyelid had just come out. How I Became One of the Invisible came last, in 1992, and I realize it is really unfair to compare these texts to Kerouac’s, in a way: they were not written spontaneously, as a kid, but by a much older man, in retrospect and with all the hindsight that 30 years of hard living affords. It is important to remember these relations of production when reading the book. How I Became One of the Invisible isn’t the off-the-cuff dispatch it sometimes pretends to be, but rather the late poet’s look over his shoulder at the stories that had stuck with him all his life, his attempt to capture them; How I Became One of the Invisible is a Time Regained of sorts. It is also, I think, one final voyage into foreign territory, one last surrender of self whose stakes should not be underestimated: it is the poet’s attempt to find his way in prose.
A couple other literary-theoretic/philosophic ideas are so resonant with Rattray’s poetic project that they are almost impossible not to mention here. When Chemical Imbalance’s Jim Fletcher, in what may well have been the only review the first edition of this book received, called How I Became One of the Invisible “a pilgrimage to unlit flows,” he was almost surely invoking the deliberate vocabulary of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, whose nomadic ethics and theoretics of “becoming-imperceptible” are all but a dead-ringer for many of the major ideas implied by Rattray’s poetic practice. In fact, Deleuze and Guattari are uniquely positioned within Western philosophic discourse as probably the only two thinkers hip at all to this alternate, subterranean and often-rhizomatic (think Leaves of Grass) American canon I have been speaking of. (Perhaps I should add here, as a genealogical footnote of my own, that none other than Charles Olson is typically credited with first having coined the term “postmodern”). In A Thousand Plateaus, the French theorists gaze across the ocean and joyfully affirm the American beat project,
From Hardy to Lawrence, from Melville to Miller, the same cry rings out: Go across, get out, break through, make a beeline . . . That is why their relationship to other civilizations, to the Orient or South America, and also to drugs and voyages in place, is entirely different from that of the French. They know how difficult it is to get out of the black hole of subjectivity, of consciousness and memory, of the couple and conjugality.
Here, though, Rattray’s insider’s take is again more critical. While Deleuze and Guattari’s unabashed romanticization of the American beats brims with faithful spirit to the genre’s many poetic promises of potentia, I find that it occasionally fails in its transatlantic disconnection to reign these promises in with the prescient approach Rattray makes towards proto-postcolonial sensitivities. But this omission does not, by any means, discredit Deleuze and Guattari’s offerings here all together. Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophic project is a decidedly singular one; it is truly wild, and makes significant, generous contributions to American literary theory that should not be dismissed. Everywhere throughout Deleuze and Guattari’s large body of work—in countless scattered, almost-erotic fragments describing uncertain “smooth” spaces (think the Pacific), creative lines-of-flight and “molecular” becomings –minor and –imperceptible—the interested reader will find a wealth of rewarding critical strategies for creatively engaging this, and many other, beat texts.
Beyond that nearly too-interpretive level, though, I think Deleuze and Guattari’s greatest sympathy with Rattray is embodied in the three authors’ incredibly similar approaches to the practice of writing itself. What I like most about all three, they share here: a very rare intensity of commitment to one’s metaphors. For Deleuze and Guattari, writing should never be a boring dialectic of representation and interpretation: it is too powerful for that, and must needs be left a wide-open “question of becoming, always incomplete, always in the midst of being formed.” Rattray’s consistent self-abandonment in literature to the always-dangerous work of becoming invisible—his willful “throwing oneself in the arms of god”—embodies that radical premise like no other writing I have seen. Deleuze and Guattari know that “to write is to become something other than a writer”; it is to experiment with different modes of living itself, and this is the meaning of walking too. Rattray’s is a wild kind of literature that moves literally in the direction of ‘changing your life,’ as Rilke would have it; of passing “from this imitation of life to life itself,” as Artaud would. Like Rattray’s own take on Artaud, I do not believe How I Became One of the Invisible is a much mystical as it is an alchemical document. Unlike many of the major 50s Beats, Rattray does not seek a personal nirvana, but rather “the acquisition and exercise of power.” For him, “the object of alchemy is the redemption of sick matter,” and this is the special operation these stories are trying to perform from the beginning. Rattray’s alchemical poetics are a precise image of Deleuze’s imagined “clinical” literature, and he pushes the surgery through to its limit: to the point of that most alchemical operation of all, the creation of poetry, “the invention of life through language.” Like Rattray, Deleuze and Guattari write not in the traditional philosophic mode of the didactic, but in the far more creative mode of the travel-instructive, the guidebook. In the end, texts like How I Became One of the Invisible and “How to Make Yourself a Body Without Organs” belong to the same genre, though I really believe they are still closer than that: just different ways of saying the same thing.
For all this, though, I want to be very careful not to academify Rattray’s work too much. In all of his writing, there is a kind of pathos that breaks through all—through the logos, or whatever, to that more dangerous territory Van warns of, to quiet places where the author might actually ‘touch other people.’ Whatever else the stories in this book are, they are also, first and foremost, love stories. Close friends still speak of David as if he really were some kind of fire continuing to burn through himself, invisible now but still releasing heat. A few lines of an old John Wieners poem, addressed to another poet friend, capture this lingering, affective presence. From “For Huncke,”
But if once you put your hand on my shoulders
as David Rattray did last evening
that would be enough…
Sadly, these forgotten lines, penned by another too-modestly-read poet, left out of his most recent Selected (Black Sparrow, 1998) and misspelled in their last printing (Cultural Affairs in Boston: Poetry and Prose 1956-1985, Black Sparrow, 1988, “Rattay”) are one of the last surviving traces of Rattray’s work in the poetry community. A few others like it exist too: David’s presence continues to flicker in and out of work by his best friends, reappearing at odd intervals, for instance, in Chris Kraus’s fiction and art criticism, and in Eileen Myles’s poetry (whose “School of Fish” actually recycles David’s dying words, the surrealistically vivid ruminations on luminescent fish captured by David himself in one of the new texts in this book). It is a fitting, loving kind of melancholia, recalling an old friend whose idiosyncratic classicist’s demeanor often lent itself to imitation during his lifetime, bred a kind of affectionate parody. To know David, these friends say, was to inhabit him in a way.
But David’s own poetry never fared so well. Like so many small poetry publishers, diwan press turned out to be a short-lived enterprise, and went under shortly after the publication of Opening the Eyelid. I’ve heard a story that many of the thousand copies printed are resting, still unsold, in cardboard boxes in a garage somewhere in the Midwest. I’m not sure if that’s the sad truth or not, but I’ll admit that a part of me almost likes to think of them there, as a sortof muted analogue of the acid tablets in Rattray’s Mexican knapsack, lying in wait like so many diminutive time bombs. An old friend of David’s was generous enough to lend me a copy, and in it I found this:
Pain is always young.
You get your wings
When you can be there for others
At distances of an order
Only birds maybe have a feel for.
These lines, penned sometime about 1990 and placed near the beginning of one of the collection’s longest works, “To the Blue Wall,” seem to freeze time and look backwards, to Van and Puerto Angel, a kind of never-consummated scene from a Grecian Urn for Rattray. Friends tell me that David never stopped thinking (or talking) about these years, that they never left him, and that there was a sense of something unresolved there. The texts about Van in here, in fact, are in some part products of different peoples’ urging him to write down for once the old stories he was always telling, over and over. When How I Became One of the Invisible came out, David flew west from NYC to do a small tour for it. Supposedly in L.A. he sought out and made peace with St. Louis Johnny, who had landed after all those years somewhere in all that sprawl. (“To the Blue Wall” reads, by the way, like a much more elegant, intelligent rejoinder to Gary Snyder’s confused “Praise for Sick Women”. You should read it).
Sometime early in 1992, David gave a reading at a since-folded bar called Mona’s, on 8th or 12th Avenue in the Lower East Side. Though some word-of-mouth had been spreading lately about his readings, and he had even filled a couple rooms to capacity, the turnout that night was small for whatever reason. In the middle of reading “Mr. Peacock,” a new long poem in-parts written in Sanskrit, David spaced out. Afterwards, walking home with some friends, he accidentally walked head-first into a lamppost. A few minutes later he did it again. The following Monday he saw his doctor and had a CAT scan taken. He had a brain tumor. Rattray was operated on within a week; the cancer was removed, but he was told he would die within 3 months. He moved with his wife to a house he had only recently built in, almost as if for his death, in Amagansett. For awhile, incredibly, he continued to write. But gradually, piece-by-piece, his body came undone: his ability to type went first, later walking and reading, and finally his heart and lungs just turned off. The entire ordeal had unfolded and run its course extremely quickly. David’s death was weird, sudden; it had an uncomfortable sense of efficiency to it, cleanliness. The Mona’s reading was the last one he gave. A funeral service was held at St. Mark’s Church.
After two weeks in Puerto Angel by myself, I started to get kind of lonely. I was reading The Soft Machine, and Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart. And I was reading How I Became One of the Invisible for a second or third or fourth time. I looked for things like the Casino bar and Café Estrella and (of course) The Angel. I didn’t come up with too much, but the place still felt more than a little haunted. The cemetery David and Van lived next to is still around, and beautiful. Mateo, an artist I met whose family was one of the oldest in town, told me that more than one Englishman had been buried in Puerto Angel. Before the cemetery was built (removed from the surf by a mere 150 yards), the locals simply used the beach. When Mateo was a kid, he and his friends sometimes found bones coming up through the sand on Playa Pantheon, which they treated as toys. There is a hidden cave in the cliffs in to the east of the fishing pier from the top of which the surf erupts every six or so minutes, giving the rocks the appearance of a having blowhole. I had four lines of a song by the Mountain Goats stuck in my head, repeating over and over. To my ear, the lyrics were the unquestionable high-water mark of a long-fabled, never-released mid-90s-period album that had just finally leaked onto the internet that May. The avenues are crawling with people. And the late sunlight makes them all look like angels. The transformation is seamless. They are unbearably bright. The song is slow, plucked, horrifically sad. I felt a little like Nina Zevancevic, finding herself being led through Amon’s tomb by a walkman and a Maria Callas cassette. Puerto Angel was named by Pirates. They came ashore sometime in the 1700s to bury a treasure which, barring the kind of aggressive commercial development which has taken place to the south at Huatulco, will probably never be found. Leaving the bay, they looked back at the place one last time. They saw two angels rising from the water.
I owe a large dept of thanks to David’s close friends Kevin Cooney, George Green, Chris Kraus and Eileen Myles for help with writing this essay. Thank you.
Rattray, David. Opening the Eyelid. Brooklyn: diwan press, 1990.
Rattray, David. A Red-framed Print of the Summer Palace. New York: Vincent Fitzgerald and Co., 1983. Artist’s book.
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