Cornelius Eady, Poetry of Compassion and Truth

Cornelius Eady at St ClementsCornelius Eady is the author of eight books of poetry, including Hardheaded Weather: New and Selected Poems (Putnam, April 2008). His second book, Victims of the Latest Dance Craze, won the Lamont Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 1985. The Gathering of My Name  was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1991. Brutal Imagination was a 2001 finalist for the National Book Award.

His theater work includes the play, “Brutal Imagination,” based on the Susan Smith story of her children being kidnapped by an African-American man. He collaborated with Diedre Murray on the libretto for the opera, “Running Man,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1999.

In 1996 he co-founded Cave Canem with Toi Derricotte, a summer workshop/retreat for African American poets. He has taught at the University of Missouri and SUNY Stonybrook, Southampton, New York.

I first met Cornelius at a reading of Home Planet News in 1980. In the audience, willowy Patricia Fillingham, a poet from suburban New Jersey, had found a home away from home on the New York poetry scene. With her Warthog Press, she published Breathe: An Anti-Smoking Anthology of poems, cartoons and songs, edited by Shel Horowitz, and Kartunes, a collection of poems by Cornelius Eady. I believe Kartunes was Cornelius’ first published book of poetry.

That fall, poets and actors performing poetry caravanned through the Poetry Festival. Cornelius Eady and Shelley Messing taped some of these events, as part of their work making audiotapes of poets for WBAI around the city. Always amiable, Cornelius was generous with his time and helped promote other poets.

Nocerino&EadyFlyer

Cornelius Eady and another poet, Kathryn Nocerino, appeared together at the Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th Street, NYC, several times between 1979 and 1983. One reading was on December 21, 1981. At one of these readings, in the large sanctuary and theater space upstairs in the church, I photographed Cornelius with his portable microphone. Tall and thin, he swayed like bamboo while he read. His poetry is compassionate with an edge that cuts into and through veils of ignorance. He fuses music with language about race, social issues, family, and love.

You can read more about him along with some of his poems at the Poetry Foundation.

 

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In Search of a New and Innocent Life

Chapter 2 of Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press, available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

In PJ’s apartment, Rogue showed me PJ’s fine press work, the hand-colored prints of Joseph Low, and letters to and from typographers, printers and publishers: W. A. Dwiggins, Burton Emmett, Dard Hunter, Eric Gill, Bennett Cerf and Ward Ritchie.

“Who’s Francis Meynell?”

“The founder of Nonesuch Books.” Rogue handed me more letters and broadsides to sort through. “I could do some research on PJ in Woodstock. I’ve been talking to a man who was interested in setting up a poetry reading there.”

“Really?” So far away, I thought.

“I’ve been thinking about moving up there. The city is getting too much for me.”

I hid my surprise and alarm with my silence, focusing my eyes on the documents. In the lamplight my bangs were lit up with red and blonde strains; all the range of colors that made my hair an ever-changing reality: in less light, brown, in more light, strawberry blonde.

Looking at PJ, I wondered what color his hair had been, how he had looked in his early days in the Village, and what he was thinking as we sifted through his much younger life.

Rogue set up an art exhibit for PJ at San Caliente.

PJ prepared a leaflet that said his art “was unique in all the world” and other things that I could not decide were meant to be sincere or satirical.

After hanging the exhibit we ambled down Ninth Avenue to a Spanish restaurant for dinner. For dessert, we went back to PJ’s, then to Washington Square Park. It was crowded on this late May evening. We sat on a bench near the fountain, students and mothers with children scattered about, a spring breeze in the young green leaves.

I took photographs in the park. Rogue was sketching and PJ encouraged him to work intuitively, without preconception, to let it happen.

Rogue was as beautiful as a young Don Juan, with his gleaming auburn hair, brown eyes and sparkling smile. His sketches grew greener and greener as night fell.

I thought we formed a wonderful threesome, two young aspiring artists and an elderly man whose mind was sharper than ours would ever be.

At San Caliente’s reading series, Rogue introduced the poets and small press publishers. He asked me if I would like to meet them, but I preferred to stay by the door handing out flyers. I was too shy to introduce the evening’s featured poets, much less read my own work. Instead, I took it all in with stunned dismay or awe.

At one reading the featured poet entertained us with ribald, working class poems. Jake was a heavy set young man with stringy light brown hair. He invited everyone to a book party at his East Village bookstore the next Saturday.

I heard Rogue say, “That’s Erin.”

“That’s Erin?” Jake gave me a surprised and appreciative look. He approached me and urged me to come to his party to “Celebrate Spring.”

My friend Rue and I arrived a half hour late. Light flowed from the small storefront, moving with the people as they moved. The place was packed. Literary magazines swayed like loincloths on a clothesline in the large plate glass window.

“Where have you been?” Jake roared at me, looking like a lost hippo among flamingoes.

The crowd milled around free-standing stacks of magazines, comic books, and small press chapbooks. The walls were lined with metal shelves displaying arcane, esoteric, famous and once-banned literary books. Two fluorescent light fixtures with exposed bulbs hovered over us like time-lapsed explosions.

People in the crowd kidded Jake, “Where’s Ted Berrigan? Did you even talk to him, or were you drunk? How many mushrooms did you eat?”

“He said he’d be here,” Jake bellowed, his face flushed by stress or drinking.

Rogue arrived with PJ, who lingered tall and frail by the door. Someone brought him a chair. His smile was genuine, childlike. He was offered food and wine, which he accepted.

I introduced Rue to PJ and Rogue.

Jake rousted his large body through the crowd. “You never spoke to him,” a man said to Jake.

“He was here.” Jake’s blue shirt was open two buttons down and sweat poured down his face. “Promised me he’d read tonight.”

We waited, we ate the cheese and drank the wine. I drank more wine.

“He’ll be here at midnight,” Jake announced. “He just called and he’s on his way.”

“He forgot,” a friend of Jake’s shouted. “They’re just as high as we are.”

Everyone was high, whether on wine, pot or excitement at being at an impromptu, late night reading by one, or perhaps two, of the last of the great Beat poets. Where Ted Berrigan went, Allen Ginsberg might also. Maybe he could be persuaded to speak.

Rogue told me PJ had to leave because of his health. Rue had to catch the last bus to New Jersey at midnight. We hailed a cab on Second Avenue and all climbed in.

Rue and I sat in the back with PJ. He was looking for his nitroglycerin. “It was a good party,” he said. “I’m glad I came.”

***

A few days later, Rogue and I met at PJ’s. We thrashed our way to the unwashed front windows. The Jefferson Library wavered beyond them like The House of Usher.

“The Women’s House of Detention used to be there.” PJ pointed to a garden behind the library, an Impressionist vision through the years of dust.

He hung his shirts from the mantel in a line in front of the fireplace. “All bohemians do that,” he said. “They never use the closet for clothes.”

In the hallway all sizes of matting boards leaned against one wall. A large skylight in the bathroom caked with grime let in almost no light, but that was the landlord’s responsibility. Very few repairs had been done on his apartment, partly because he would not let workers who were strangers in, and because he was a rent-controlled tenant paying a pittance each month and the landlord was waiting him out.

Next to a small round kitchen table, an ironing board stood upright, covered with papers, letters, bowls of paper clips, nails, rubber bands, screws, and small linoleum blocks used for print designs. A tray held ballpoint and felt pens, screwdrivers and assorted tools. On one shelf rested an ancient cutting and splicing machine for films.

I helped PJ line up bottles of pills and tubes of skin ointment on the counter by the gas stove. On dingy once white walls a calendar with a full-lipped smiling woman and a drawing of PJ by Rogue flirted beside a room thermometer.

The brick inner wall of the front room featured an ad of a beautiful woman half-clad in a bath towel.

PJ saw me looking and said, “Olga,” he said, “O.”

The famous O, his last love. He had written thousands of pages to her and about her.

There were boxes in the front room labeled “O,” and others labeled: Loves, Early Loves, and Later Loves.

At first, the Bohemian lifestyle shocked him but, in fact, he was running from his puritanical upbringing. “I came to Greenwich Village in search of a new and innocent life. At the age of 18, I was already leaving behind a guilty past.”

“Guilty? So young?”

“I had a tumultuous relationship with my mother,” he explained. “She had an unnatural love for me, all her life. We shared the same bed until I was twelve. I had strange dreams as a child that may have had a factual basis.”

“But that’s not your fault.”

“I started to watch the girl across the street and walk naked around the house. Finally, I went outside without a stitch of clothing and walked down the street. A black woman I knew worked in one of the houses saw me. She didn’t blink an eye and told me, ‘Young man, go home.’ I didn’t know it then, but I was becoming an exhibitionist and a voyeur.”

As we cleaned the place, I found piles of newspaper and magazine clippings about pornography: sex and violence, theater and nudity, art and censorship. Many images were lurid and over-the-top. I was disgusted and thought of walking out on PJ. I mean, it’s sex. Just do it.

There were stacks of nude photographs of men and women that PJ had taken. He also made erotic and pornographic films; the reels were scattered around.

“I was in a porno film once,” he said. He knew other filmmakers and went to see their movies. I picked up early editions of Screw and several volumes of Casanova’s memoirs.

“Casanova wrote his memoirs in his old age,” PJ said. “How much exaggeration do you think there might be in an old man’s memory?”

Sexual exaggeration. I looked around. That’s what it is. What had he been looking for in all this? His youth of wild passion? Compensation for lost love?

He told me Egmont Arens and Jo Bell had been the previous tenants of the apartment. Jo Bell had been involved in a court case about obscenity in literature.

“Apparently she had the look and demeanor of innocence,” PJ said, “because the judge dismissed the charges. It was a big issue then,” he said. “Ulysses was banned, and later Lady Chatterley’s Lover and A Farewell To Arms.

I was surprised to hear about A Farewell To Arms.

Rogue told me PJ talked about the galleys and handling the plates for Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He had done some research, “The book was banned in December 1929.”

“So that means PJ would’ve worked on it probably in the 1930s.”

“He said he took the books to Frances Steloff at the Gotham Book Mart. I went up there and spoke to her, and she asked, ‘How is Paul Johnston?’” Rogue smiled. “I said he was clinging to his sense of humor.”

 ***

Egmont and his wife were divorced and one day, passing by, PJ saw a note on the downstairs door saying that the garret was for rent. The rent was low and he took the apartment. Gas and electric, though, ran five times higher than the rent. A few years ago, he told me, he had an outstanding bill to Con Ed for several thousand dollars. One October when it was beginning to get cold, his gas and electric were shut off on a Friday afternoon. There was nothing he could do about it until Monday. Because he was going blind, he could not read their bills or notices threatening discontinuing service.

After this, the city found him eligible for visiting nurse and home care. But PJ refused to let the women in the front room or give him much nursing attention. The home care attendant kept the bathroom and kitchen clean, basically housekeeping, and had to wait for him to leave the apartment before she could charge into the front room and change the sheets.

Rogue was setting up a contribution of PJ’s fine press work with the New York Public Library. PJ would receive some much-needed compensation.

After I cleaned the kitchen and swept the hallway, I moved to the front room, clearing paths through the rubble, sorting out trash for PJ to inspect and agree to discard. We gathered like things together, making sense of years of artwork and book design.

There were handwritten letters.

“Elmer Adler?”

The Colophon,” PJ answered. “It was a quarterly for book collectors.”

Into a box went Adler. “One from D. B. Updike? And Bruce Rogers?”

“Bruce Rogers,” PJ said, “who in 1899 or so he was working for Houghton Mifflin. Updike was a very careful and thoughtful printer. Both Updike and Bruce Rogers had nobody to lead them in their styles, but themselves. They had only the history of good printing to look back on, and they were making their contributions to a movement that started in the 1400s, well, I would say, 1500, began to take on a very distinctive style and even after …

“See, I researched all this in the New York Public Library. The library was my alma mater. I used to go in there all the time, spend the day and days and days in there, looking up old specimen books and old printing work. I found an unknown New York printer who had, like Updike, a style of neat printing, and they were printing dissertations of students and politicians and poetry. In the 18th Century, in the 1790s, to put some style in their work they were publishing dissertations. T & J Swords. So I researched and did a story on them. I did all that research in the library. When Updike began in Boston in 1900s, early 1900s, he had nothing to guide him but his own good taste in printing. He was not imitating because there was no style in printing. Rogers was up against the same thing.”

His research and correspondence led to his book, Biblio-Typographica: A Survey of Contemporary Fine Printing Style, published by Covici-Friede in 1930.

While I collected his fine press work, placing them in clean boxes and labeling them, I admired the book designs, the exquisite fonts and covers and binding.

“All that ended when I died in the hospital,” PJ told me.

PJ’s innocence ripened for forty years before it was plucked from the vine. “I plucked it,” he said, “but isn’t that often the case? I was in an affair, and so was my wife. I thought I was in love and I sensed that my wife needed to be free of me. But after the separation it became unbearable. I’d made the worst mistake of my life. The affair ended, of course.”

When he realized he was losing his wife, he became ill and was hospitalized; surgery on his heart led to complications. In the hospital, he physically died and was revived by the doctors.

Afterward, he began The Document. In the early years of writing, he was often depressed. “You do not want death, no matter how much you cry that you do. Yet you are fighting against life. You fight it with illness. You fight it emotionally, being unwilling to love others, to be full of love and attract others who could and should be loved. You have discovered that your lassitude and illness is an evasion of the necessity of making your life worthy of yourself.”

After a pause in which PJ sat with his hands loosely clasped, he said with a hint of a grin, “I wonder how many who wish for death in their youth, at the first stroke of disintegration, live to be a hundred?”

***

Jake told me he was going on vacation, and asked me to work several days at his East Village bookstore. For the job, I wore my best blue jeans and a short-sleeved Asian-style blouse. On the last day, Rogue came by, lounging among the book stacks. He looked Continental Communist in lightweight European-style pants and a workman’s pullover shirt. We walked as evening brushed the Village with its paints. To escape the summer heat, we stopped to browse in air-conditioned stores along the way. I had a drink at a vegetarian restaurant on Spring Street that made me woozy.

As darkness fell we saw the lights of the Our Lady of Pompeii Festival bloom above the low-rise tenements and brownstones. We bought calzones, and one for PJ, and strolled up Sixth Avenue to his apartment.

In the night, with people swirling by, PJ occupied a lawn chair on the corner of Greenwich Avenue.

I asked him why he had not brought out the Fair Weather Gallery and he said he had just come out to cool off.

His face lit up when we handed him the calzone.

***

Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press, is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble: Paperback $16.95 (check for discounts)  and Kindle $5.99. Tally is in Amazon’s Matchbook program, which means you can buy the print book and get the Kindle for just $1.99. Send one as a gift!