February 4, 2010
Kirby Congdon, Born to Be Beat
by Mark Howell
from “The Cat’s Story” by Kirby Congdon
All living things are born
To be canned as cat food.
But we don’t can people
Because people have can openers
And, so, are useful.
All animals have their uses.
A cat, however, does not need to be useful.
He is born a cat, he stays a cat, and he lives forever.
Any cat is the oldest and wisest
And the most beautiful creature
In the whole animal kingdom.
Be thankful you’re a cat.
I first met the cat called Kirby Congdon in an alley called Appelrouth Lane. Back then it was a bopping place of poetry and the neo-beat life, and the very first time he turned up for a reading we almost missed him.
I was racing up the lane to retrieve Harry Calhoun, who’d checked out of our opening night at the Appelrouth Grill by running away and I don’t blame him. I felt he should take another shot. At least another shot of tequila from an upturned shot glass, snorted up the nostril.
That was then. And blow me if we didn’t get back to the grill to find it packed with poets, among them Kirby. “Milky ways across the night,” he told us, “are what this world is all about.”
Kirby was a cool, flustered guy in blue shirt and leather pants, with a huge motorcycle on the street outside. “Wild, nameless, untamed” was another line of his.
He was different from the rest of the poets. In the limelight his face was a parchment with a photo printed on it of a poet from the nightclub called the hungry i. He looked sharp and he seemed kind and we loved him right away.
“Then I go the other way,” he said of the way he trips the listener.
I had an inexpressible question of the beats at the time but it went unasked of Kirby because I had no real idea of what the question was. Maybe later, I thought.
Todd Swift, a book reviewer in England, once called Kirby avant garde “only by virtue of being completely unknown.” Of the anthology in which Kirby appeared, Todd said, “Never have I seen an uglier front or back cover. It bears every resemblance to the smallest of smallest publishing ventures. For that reason alone it merits a nod of respect.”
I’ll give him that nod of respect, and to Louis Weingarden too. Louis was the composer whose “Inquiries of Hope: Ten Poems of Kirby Congdon” is the earliest musical composition to address the epidemic of AIDS. Louis owned a boot shop and erotic art gallery on West 4th Street in New York City, where he exhibited Robert Mapplethorpe and Tom of Finland. In the summer of 1978, Louis organized a group of leather men called SMASH (Society to Make America Safe for Homosexuals). Where Louis was, you could find God. You could find God where the leather men were. Kirby was a leather man.
He started it. At 18 he had joined the army for three years, then went to Columbia on the GI Bill. He went out one day and bought a motorcycle and the leathers to go with it. Leather was a release, he explained, especially for army veterans “old enough to express themselves.”
Kirby has written of industrial machinery, motorcycle fantasies, heroes from the comic strips, rural Connecticut and cats. I never did talk with him about God or about that question I had.
The big book we all associated with Kirby’s was one of his first, “Iron Ark: A Bestiary,” a wholly original work that e.e. cummings found attractive and Marianne Moore liked as well. But the New York Times failed to review it – too original – so Kirby was assigned to public obscurity.
Poets, however, recognize him. “‘Iron Ark’ poems are truly fine,” said beat pioneer Gregory Corso. “You is a poet, son.”
Kirby went on to write “Juggernaut,” “Dream-Work,” “A Key West Rebus” and a dozen other books of poetry and prose. His language, says Alyson Matley, is a liquid connection between inconsequential perfection and primal forces.
His house on Baker Lane is a bookman’s temple. His partner of 41 years, Ralph Simmons, also his primary designer and publisher, has never been able to throw a book away.
The cottage is floor to ceiling with them. Kirby bought this house, right across the lane from where Richard Watherwax lives, in 1959, when the beat movement was at its height.
Kirby’s other home on Fire Island he inherited from his first love, Jay Socin, who died three months after him and Kirby split. Fire Island is where he and Ralph go in the summers, the setting of many of his poems.
Kirby once told me how he it was he got to know Gregory Corso, the Lancelot of the beat round table, in the early 1970s. An editor named Eli Wilentz could no longer take the divinely inspired Gregory hanging out at his New York pad, so Kirby and Jay took him in, or on. Corso’s life was a mess of drugs and marriages and children that would finally came to rest (he was the last of the founding beats to die) right next to Shelley in the cemetery in Rome.
I listened to this while sunlight mellowed in the great window behind Kirby, silhouetting his sinking profile as he sat in the big, deep couch. My eyes roamed the room. At the piano was an open piece of music.
On the table lay a chap book with the title, “What is Poetry For?” I took a taste.
“The sense of reality,” wrote Kirby in this book, “depends on a live and changing environment of facts and influences. Otherwise it disappears from view, and becomes blank. And we become blank. Without a flowing and changing context, every item we know becomes invisible, even if it is one’s own identity, one’s own name, one’s own sanity.”
How’s this for a change of context. Kirby Congdon is 81 years old; Ralph Simmons is 73. “Let my tight heart’s hope live on air,” says Kirby.
I meet mostly Ralph these days, on his trips to the newspaper office to deliver the latest from Kirby. I wish him well with his health, then ask him to pass on a message or two to Kirby.
Kirby’s mother was from Norway, where the average high school education beats a college education in the United States. His dad was a New England native. From those roots Kirby has cultivated a body of work that has attracted collectors.
Kirby’s works (as they used to call William Burroughs’ drug equipment) are gathered at the Kurtzman Collection of Beat Literature at the University of California, along with first editions of Burroughs plus Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Also collecting the works is the Kenneth Spencer Research Library in the Department of Special Collections at the University of Kansas, home of the Burroughs papers.
He surely is, then, the man to answer my question, the man to solve the puzzle, the man to tell me what it is about the beats that I wished to ask.
Like, how did I miss the boat?
And more directly, What’s God’s plan now?
A week or so later I received a postcard in the mail.
“Ralph shared your confidences with me,” read the black ink in Kirby’s recognizable hand. “Sometimes the only thing we have to fall back on is the assertion that we bear injustice and disappointment with dignity.
“Before we have any champions on our behalf, we have to believe in ourselves.
“That is an irrational position, but anything else, anyone else, isn’t very sane either!
Next I received a puzzling package in the mail.
Inside was a little book with the words “Dear Fathers” on the cover. It had been published by Kirby in 1972 and consisted entirely of the typescript, verbatim, of a letter from Gregory Corso to a monk.
“Man is the closest thing to angels and angels are sensitive things,” says Gregory in his letter, chiding the church for collecting souls. (Collecting souls is what the devil does.) “Life will always be subject to drive people mad. It is not death holds the wonder and mystery and horror and sadness. It is life needs to go to heaven, not man.”
It was addressed to the only beat Benedictine in all of Christendom, a monk who lived in a monastery in the west of England, an abbey on the very same hillside where my brother and I had been raised. He was our neighbor, Dom Pierre Houedard. An ocean away.
Of all people. Being lectured by sweet Corso. In a package from Kirby.
My ego crumbled with the punch line.
“I have it in me to put myself down for no reason at all,” confesses Corso. “Maybe it’s because sometimes I feel so way above. And believe me, above is not a very pleasant place.
“You’re alone there, and help is of no avail there.
“That is the sorrow I see in God.
“And no one can help him.”