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The Ancient Rain

“Creation is Perfect”

–Bob Kaufman

Bob Kaufman, by Chris Felver 1977.

I first met Bob Kaufman in North Beach at a poetry gathering. The Old Spaghetti Factory was a place poets had gathered for over 40 years; it was Beat, with old wicker chairs hanging from the ceiling and painter’s memoranda decorating the walls. They had an open reading every Thursday. It was also a bar where you could hang out and drink when some poet was on in back stage that you didn’t care for. It was a restaurant that prided itself in Italian cuisine, and had the best garlic bread that I’ve ever tasted. The place was buzzing on Thursdays, and usually more than 40 poets had already signed up when you got there. Bob was a black Jew, who had acclaimed fame back in the late ’50s and early ’60s. He had walked a tightrope of racism all his life, and when I found him he was living in an all black ghetto. He had emphysema and also brain damage from getting beat up by the cops and getting strung out on booze, thorezene, and amphetamines. I remember the night he packed the backroom with poets waiting to hear the legendary Bob Kaufman read. He recited the Kingfisher poem from memory and chanted it like a man coughing to death. His health was so bad, and he looked like someone who had been to hell and back. The legend of Bob surrounded him like a nimbus. One thing I realized in listening to him recite was that he was a real poet beaten down by society; the potential fate of us all. He had two things that made him almost a martyr: he was black and Jewish with an obvious talent for changing words into whips; white tipped and staining bodies with a thirst for scarlet. He had lived life on street drugs and booze and he had barely survived life’s catastrophes. I still remember how he chanted with snot running down his face, looking like a sculpture of pain; as though someone had divided the good and the bad times and left him naked, swimming in bone, cold and tragic, yet at the same time familiarly warm. His face was truly black—not pale brown—he wore an artist’s cap, and looked very poetic with his black beard trimmed with gray. He was, as I learned later, a proud and dignified man beaten down by society until there was nothing left in the end but a bed that he could die in and a woman who later would discover his smiling corpse. He was like a phoenix with his words rising out of the pyre of his own soul, and reaching people with meaning and depth.

To be a man of words is to leave this world with a gift, that is the sum of your worth. Bob left me with more than a gift, he left me with the silence he had fought for so long. I lived with Bob, and experienced his broken soul, that once, so long ago he had poured out to humanity. I remember during the 1984 elections, the man laying in his hammock of peace, making it known to all of us that his sickness was not a disguise. The depth of Bob was his sinking frogeyes that had once leapt above the world like a paratrooper. Like unleavened bread, Bob had seen that too much consumption little by little burned into his palms and shaped him into a poet of darkness, one that cries out in the night against the criminality of chemicals and materialism. He searched deep into the jazz tones of his spirit and found there a wrecked ship smelling of brandy and cigarettes. Bob was a naturally loving man, and he always knew when he was being used. He stuck to himself, watching TV on his deathbed. The silence Bob had partaken of was merely the realization of something higher penetrating his injured skull like a voice faraway, or a stillness that comes on sudden like death.

The Ancient Rain was the title of Bob’s last book. It, in my opinion, is the most important work. It is a vision of emancipation, like of old with the Pharaohs, and even like Noah with the vision of Holy Justice coming down from heaven. For a man who had one too many nights of black hatred, one too many unforgiveable beatings, he shows us that there is a kind of justice coming from on high, and that creation is truly perfect. The poet is the receiver, it is him that talks and bargains with God. Though death has triumph, the poet defeats it with a mirror of words that hypnotizes the clouds. Like a moth attached to the fire, Bob lived his life seeking truth. The truth he eventually found was cable TV. I remember one night I was upstairs talking on the telephone, when I heard Bob’s rough voice calling to me. I came down to see what he wanted; Barney Miller was on, our favorite program, and he wanted us to watch it together. It became a ritual; late night TV. Though Bob could barely hear, he kept his concentration on the screen. I also found out that Bob liked Bob Dylan. The stereo was always tuned to Kjazz, Bob’s favorite music, he had lived jazz and fought for jazz to liberate his soul. The Ancient Rain would come softly in the night and bless his skeleton with tears of holy wonder. It is worth saying that Bob loved people, especially children. I remember one day I found him at the gate waiting for me to come home. I handed him a stuffed rattle, like a two-handed gavel that a jester would carry. I found it on the sidewalk that afternoon, and Bob accepted it. When he came back in the house, he had a big smile and his eyes were sparkling. I asked him what he had done with the stuffed rattle, and he said, “I gave it to the baby next door.” There was indeed a baby and a single Chicano mother who I had talked with a few brief times. Bob loved this baby, as Bob loved the words that broke his silence.

At the final hour comes the final wisdom; Bob was prepared for his death. One night when I was asleep on the couch, Bob had gotten up and started a fire in the kitchen. “The lights, I wanted to go out and see the lights, but I couldn’t find the flashlight…” Bob explained himself. Can we imagine what lights he was talking about in his mystic babble? Perhaps they were real, just inflated in Bob’s imagination, or like the Ancient Rain, a symbol for the search for purity in words and thoughts, the Lights were present that night. To open up to the possibility of prophecy is to begin to read poetry for the first time, getting goose bumps up and down your arms, to be filled with the power of myth, which still in this modern age provides us with sacred food that fulfills us with our spiritual hunger running savage, and our knowingness small and humble. Everyone knows that poets aren’t perfect, neither was Bob; but according to Bob, creation is perfect. It is a funny fact that a man who had fought so much in his life would in return give peaceful odes to silence. The cold facts were Bob’s addiction to drugs and booze. Everyone knew that Bob was a man of the bars, and under booze he wrote his most lucid poems.

Bob’s son Parker did not maintain a close relationship with his father. I never met him, but I did know his mother. There was a separate reality between the two men, as both dealt with racism in their own unique way. Bob dealt with it by putting on the face of the tragic clown, his son had no talent in this way, he was a dancer and expressed his creative energy through his body. Bob was an intellectual, and kept himself locked up in his own head. Though once, a long time ago, Bob had danced on the tables of the Bagle Factory, reciting poetry for the cops. There had been a rebellion, as though he too had defied his father, and chose to go out to sea at an early age. The poet hangs on a cross of flesh, mixing pleasure and pain, waiting and wondering what the Ancient Rain might do when it came back to earth. The first and the last, the Omega and the Alpha; Black-Man had been first once, first created, and now God would seek out his original people from the darkest part of the city. Even pride had been broken, and self-pity had opened up, asking would you wear my eyes? Yes, Bob, we will wear your eyes, one day after the Ancient Rain has subsided: “A fish with frog eyes, Creation is Perfect.”

Contributor

Eric Walker

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The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 14-JAN 15

All Issues