Even those who have been drinking on and off all day are attentive to the configuration of sun and yardarm, if not the prospect of the evening meal. But even though the shadows were lengthening over the summer’s Curious Arts Festival, in the New River Press tent an audience listened under a spell. The last slot of the day was given over to a poetry performance of rare poignancy, derived not just from the power of the words but the story of the poet. Robert Lundquist was reading his long poem ‘A Street’, an evocation of his childhood in Los Angeles. Round and round the stanzas spiralled, doubling back, evoking the boy Lundquist’s synaesthesia and obsessive-compulsive need to tap multiples of numbers to control his anxiety: ‘even/numbers taste like sugar/even/numbers are soft like breasts.’
Sitting in the deckchair next to me was the artist Gavin Turk (such are the unexpected delights of summer arts festivals), who confessed himself to be poetry-curious rather than a hardcore fan. What was he making of it? I was uncomfortably aware as the reading went over time, then well over time, that this verbal profligacy might wear down his initial enthusiasm. My back was cricking as I snatched at Lundquist’s flowing imagery; on my other side sat the poet’s motionless wife, Nazare, and I didn’t want to fidget.
George Szirtes has an anecdote about Miroslav Holub at a literary conference where the last speaker of the day spoke interminably in German. Sitting with Szirtes and Holub was a visited poet who began to wriggle and sigh with impatience. After the man had ceased speaking, and the event finished, Holub admonished her: ‘You don’t understand. That man has been silent for 40 years. If he wants to speak, you must let him speak.’ This turned out to be Turk’s attitude, too. It was Lundquist’s precious moment that we were lucky enough to share.
After the reading, for the remainder of the festival, he was lionised. There were two overnight developments: David Erdos wrote a perceptive study appearing online in International Times the next morning, where he acclaimed the work as ‘saturated with the wisdom of survival and … the studied poetics of pain’. Singer Sophie Naufal composed a haunting song inspired by ‘A Street’ and the shared experience that she performed in the closing stages of the festival.
A long-lost American voice, Lundquist has just published a debut collection ‘After Mozart (Heroin on 5th St)’, written in bursts over five decades, its gaps and caesuras as meaningful and poignant as its outpourings. Before this volume appeared from New River Press, his work had been scattered over poetry magazines and archives. The cover, showing a longhaired young Lundquist, eyes ambiguously lowered – high? Or just shy? – gives a taste of his hip credentials. It was taken by Warhol protégé Gerard Malanga in the early Seventies.
Lack of recognition was not the young Lundquist’s problem; he was listed in his early twenties as one of Rolling Stone magazine’s ‘Best 100 American Poets’. His is a tale of the occasionally baleful effect of premature acclaim.
A self-confessed educational failure, in the summer of 1969 he’d been riding freight trains and stopped in Chico, California, where he met Larry Benton, who taught Spanish poetry at Chico State University. ‘Larry invited me to stay awhile and gave me his study,’ recalls Lundquist. He was introduced to the works of Lorca, Unamuno and other poets and was inspired to write. A poem was quickly picked up by The Paris Review, who asked from what language it had been translated. At 21 he moved to Santa Cruz, California, to be part of the literary renaissance in that town; there’s a group portrait of the writers there in the book, dated June 1973, and showing Lundquist looking moodily out of a window, face as ever averted. Here his work was picked up by Quarry West magazine, founded by Raymond Carver.
Initial success proved too frightening to sustain. Having grown up in an area of Los Angeles blighted by heroin addiction, with a cop for a father, Lundquist succumbed to alcoholism; its ravages periodically robbed him of his vocation. Now a psychoanalyst, he remarks that an inability to repeat himself poetically has also led to long periods of writer’s block. ‘Whenever I finish a cycle of poems, I can never return to their style for future work; they are done. I am terrified of becoming an imitation of myself. One of these periods waiting for a new voice, an original voice, left me intoxicated for six years, three of those years so physically addicted to alcohol I gave up shelter. Every cent went to a bottle, a bottle that would enable me to forget who I had been.’
Before the reading at Curious Arts, Lundquist was interviewed on stage by Robert Montgomery, who with fellow poet Greta Bellamacina set up the New River Press. With no trace of self-pity Lundquist recounted some of the exploits of his lost years, the nadir possibly being evicted from his dossing place behind – not in – a garage. ‘Then came detox, and the editors of Quarry West calling the recovery facility to ensure I was sober,’ he recalls. At this period, between he ages of 30 and 35, ‘A Street’ was written, together with its companion piece ‘Five Street’, both printed in Quarry West. ‘Soon after leaving the facility I began hearing thoughts that were more like voices. I was reading The Waste Land at the time. I would read Eliot and then hover in uncertainty until I transcribed a page a day for one year, then my mind just became quiet.’
The poem sees through the child’s eyes the mystery of the parent’s lives, the father working undercover, the mother withdrawn into illness. Lines express the cruelty of other children, identifying the outlier. ‘Your father’s a cop and you steal./Your/father’s a cop and you steal/And your mother’s inside a sanitarium./Sanitariums are/for the crazy./My mother has TB./Your mother’s crazy…/Keep tapping your fingers.’ And the final taunt: ‘Your father/kills people.’ One marvellous section, read by the poet with thrilling poignancy, vocalises the child’s bewilderment:
When can I see her?
qqqqqqqqqqqqqqqWhen she’s no longer contagious.
What does she look like?
Are her cheeks still gone from her face?
qqqqqqqqqqqqqqqHer cheeks are coming back.
Are there stains on her lips from the bleeding?
qqqqqqqqqqqqqqqThe bleeding has stopped.
Is her throat all right?
qqqqqqqqqqqqqqqThe veins no longer break in her neck.
Do they comb her hair?
qqqqqqqqqqqqqqqYes, they comb her hair…
There’s also a brother, Joey, himself in some mental distress:
Why don’t you mention your brother?
He is different from the rest.
How can you tell him apart?
By the spaces between his words.
Not how long, how short.
What should I say if we should meet?
You haven’t a chance against the voices inside him.
After the breakthrough represented by ‘A Street’ and ‘Five Street’, things seemed to be going well for Lundquist. ‘I was working for the Californian Arts Council, teaching poetry in the California prisons, collating [their] work and publishing a book called ‘About Time II’. Again, I fell silent. The poet Paul Mann suggested I spend a year or two reading Celan, Jabes and Ashbery before attempting to write again. In so doing, I stopped writing completely.’
Between the years 1985 to 2014 he had read Celan ‘like some people read the Bible’, hoping the influence would percolate down and enable him to write his own ‘short, terse poems’. But nothing surfaced. In 2014 a couple of fortuitous encounters broke the curse. He began a correspondence with Esther Deiffus Khan, biographer of Paul Klee, who suggested he begin to write again, and met poets Bellamacina and Montgomery. Much of the credit for this literary Lazarus-raising goes to them, and it must have felt fated: the pair have a young son named Lorca. At their request he began to pull his work together for ‘After Mozart (Heroin on 5th St)’. In this mysterious process, very different, newly minted poems continue to arrive. ‘The new prose poems allow me to stretch myself in ways I have never been able to.’
You Persist Of Course
Despite the narrow trees across a path you will not follow, where you dress in branches fallen in a terrible wind, your guns watch each patch of fur glowing in the dark, your hands smelling of elk, your hands holding on to the antlers turning inside you.
The tourniquet just below your knees slips into a pool of water you found while there was still light. The roads nearby are quiet. A thick slip of blood saddles a row of ferns while a thin stream crawls to the corners of your mouth.
When you were very young, you tied a noose around each stick, killed flies for bait, waited for the lizards to hang. Clouds covered the sun. Rain poured over you, anointing each kill. When the thunder began, you danced.
You took the oath before you knew what it meant, before the herds gathered around you and the males began to die too young. When it was your turn to put on the bark, shake the leaves from the tree, you climbed out on a limb, starring across a ravine at your self, both barrels poised on top of a hill, waiting.
Today Lundquist still lives and works in downtown Los Angeles, having earned his doctorate at the Institute for Contemporary Psychoanalysis. A practising analyst, his office is above The Last Bookstore on the corner of 5thand Spring where he continues to wait for poems to call.
Suzi Feay was literary editor of the Independent on Sunday for eleven years and has judged many literary prizes. She has been a writer, broadcaster and critic on a wide range of literary and cultural topics in the UK media.
For more on Robert Lundquist, visit New River Press.