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Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus: A Biography
University of California Press, $39.95 (cloth)
In her 1927 essay “The New Biography,” Virginia Woolf argues that the biographer’s duty is to create the right relationship between factual truth and the subject’s personality. If the biographer begins with the “granite-like solidity” of historical fact on the one hand, and the “rainbow-like intangibility” of personality on the other, then “the task of biography is to weld these two into one seamless whole.” Though Woolf situates herself in the middle of a revolution in biographical writing, a time when Lytton Strachey challenged both the piety of Victorian portraiture and the equation of a greater number of facts with greater veracity, she recognizes that the task of biography has in essence remained unchanged since Boswell spent his days stalking Doctor Johnson’s table talk. Neither the biographer’s attitude toward her subject nor the length of the biography nor any other innovation proposed by changing historical contexts has altered the promise the biographer makes: to practice an art “subtle and bold enough to present that queer amalgamation of dream and reality, that perpetual marriage of granite and rainbow.”
In judging any biography, then, the central question is whether the author has effected that wedding—a challenge no matter who the subject is, but one undoubtedly made more complicated when rendering a life devoted to the pursuit of truth in both its largest, most mythic sense and its most intimate linguistic and psychic registers. Lisa Jarnot’s Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus deals with such a biographical subject, one adamantly dedicated to what he called “the truth and life of myth,” the “moving counterpoint between what we see and what we do not see.” A poet associated with both the San Francisco Renaissance and Black Mountain College, a committed Freudian and student of hermetic systems, Duncan describes his poetics this way:
The poet is not only a maker in the sense of the maker of the poem, but he makes up his mind, he makes up a world within a world, a setting of elements of play, that carries over into a maturity the make-believe of childhood, where, too, certain misunderstandings and mistakes led not to disaster but to fruitful pastures. It is a lesson learned again in Freud’s insights that we have not to avoid our mis-understandings but to understand them. . . What emerges is a mythic possibility; it is also creative, a poetic structure in our history then.
This passage beautifully illustrates Duncan’s mature sense of poiesis—the making each poet undertakes—and demonstrates how high Duncan sets the stakes of the poet’s vocation. Such making blurs the boundaries between the poet’s mind and the world, resists the stripping of myth from the workings of history, and brings childhood play into mature prosody (such as in the charming rhyme between “disaster” and “pastures”). Add to this poiesis a deep investment in Western hermetic and occult systems, and it’s easy to see why Duncan’s work has always posed serious challenges to academic and critical orthodoxies. The resulting poetics also challenges Woolf’s division of biographical writing into the binary qualities of granite and rainbow—it challenges, in fact, the task of biography itself. What is the granite of historical fact if our history is limned by the “mythic possibility” of “a poetic structure”? And what is the rainbow of an individual personality if even “the work-a-day world,” as Duncan writes, “speaks in tongues”? What would biography be if it were the marriage between mythic possibility and a world that speaks in tongues?
Perhaps because Jarnot is herself an accomplished poet, she has clearly decided such questions remain more pertinent to poetry than biography. Neither a biomythography derived from Duncan’s metaphysically charged poetics nor a critical biography engaged with Duncan’s oeuvre in detail, The Ambassador from Venus offers instead the first complete narrative of Duncan’s “work-a-day world,” a much-needed replacement of Ekbert Faas’s inaccurate and outdated Young Robert Duncan: Portrait of the Poet as Homosexual in Society. But because Jarnot, as she informs us in a brief textual note preceding the text, has “refrained from deeper interpretations of the work in [her] interest to shape the book as biography rather than criticism,” she’s left with the traditional tools of biography to create a portrait of a poet for whom the dimensions of myth infused those of the actual. Jarnot works well with the abundant facts offered by Duncan’s life, and proves herself a skilled writer of narrative and of historical setting in particular, but her emphasis on granite-like details diminishes the mythic scale of Duncan’s self-image, instilled in him by his adoptive Theosophist parents, who chose their first child according to his natal astrological chart and thought him to be the reincarnation of a resident of Atlantis. That even the famously anti-occult Charles Olson once called him “the ambassador from Venus” shows how potent this mythic self-image became during his lifetime.
Narratively, The Ambassador from Venus proceeds at a fast clip, especially once Duncan leaves the Bakersfield of his adolescence for the Berkeley of his young adulthood. The biography’s speed creates the impression that Duncan’s youth was as chaotic as his later career was meteoric, an impression that may not be wrong, but which leaves little room in the picture for Duncan’s slow development as a thinker and writer: Duncan published The Opening of the Field, considered by most to be his “breakout” book, when he was forty-one. Jarnot’s preference for narrative summary over scene allows her to build quick transitions that both track Duncan’s peripatetic twenties spent moving between Berkeley, New York City, and Woodstock and recreate the hectic travel schedule of his later decades on the international reading and lecture circuit. At times, however, she creates such a swirl of activity that it’s hard to imagine how Duncan ever wrote anything, especially during her maddeningly flat account of Duncan’s reading tours in the ’70s, a decade during which he may have traveled a lot but also penned most of Ground Work I and II andlater sections of The H.D. Book as well as miscellaneous essays and talks.
Add to this poeisis a deep investment in Western hermetic and occult systms, and it's easy to see why Duncan has always posed serious challenges to academic orthodoxies.
It is when Jarnot gives us brief glimpses into Duncan’s historical context as well as his artistic and pedagogical communities that she hints at more of Duncan’s personality than is afforded by her brisk recounting of the facts. She includes remarkable set pieces describing the Oakland of his birth and the Alameda of his early childhood; the San Francisco home he made together with his life partner, artist Burgess Franklin Collins (known simply as “Jess”); and the increasingly harrowing years of kidney disease that galvanized a community of younger poets around the dying Duncan. And with regular reference to events of local, national, and international significance, Jarnot counterpoints the changes in Duncan’s life and art with the cultural and political changes that radically transformed the United States generally and the Bay Area specifically between 1919 and 1988, the years that bracket Duncan’s life. Jarnot’s extensive research also gives us access to important artistic communities and countercultures of the postwar era: the flourishing Berkeley Renaissance of the late ’40s and the expatriate network in the Mallorca of the ’50s; the classes Duncan taught during the final spring and summer semesters of Black Mountain College in 1956; the loose network of San Francisco poets, filmmakers, queers, and artists who were invited into or cast out of Jess’s and Duncan’s lifelong circle of friends; the classes in poetry and poetics Duncan taught at New College of California during the ’80s. And because Jarnot’s reconstruction of these communities emphasizes others’ accounts rather than Duncan’s own diaries and letters, we are treated over the course of the biography to visions of Duncan as both “the enamord mage” he often was to close friends and students and “the nasty aesthetician” he could be to former friends and sworn enemies.
The felicities of Jarnot’s choice to pursue the form of traditional biography are many, but serious missteps in execution often overshadow her achievements. While her reliance on summary might make tracking Duncan’s movement easier, it allows for little more than brief lingering over scenes from the communities and countercultures Duncan participated in. This results in a kind of dramatic equality between events of wildly differing importance, a two-dimensionality that sometimes produces monotony rather than the dramas Duncan was often embroiled in. The biography’s narrative speed and emphasis on movement also inadvertently downplay the central importance Duncan placed on the household as an imaginative space and on his rich domestic life with Jess, images of which he preserved and celebrated in the work of his early maturity especially. And though Jarnot’s emphasis on showing Duncan from the outside certainly allows us to observe how others responded to him, we aren’t treated as fully to Duncan as he came to understand himself and his work as an adult—a strange choice given the wealth of self-reflexive materials he left behind.
On many occasions, however, Jarnot chooses exactly the right method of relating an anecdote, one through which Duncan’s personal and literary self-understanding and others’ reactions to him stand against each other in high relief. One such story is the controversy that arose when Duncan and Barrett Watten shared the bill on a tribute to Louis Zukofsky at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1978. Often figured by critics as a watershed moment in the generational shift away from New American Poetics toward Language Poetry, all accounts agree on the general outline: Duncan spoke first, and Watten second, but Duncan quickly grew impatient with Watten’s mode of address and would not let him finish his talk. By quoting anecdotes told by Ron Silliman, David Bromige, and Stephen Rodefer as well as Duncan, Jarnot succeeds in showing Duncan and his behavior from multiple, conflicting perspectives, a gesture one wishes she had made more often—for it is a gesture such as this that most effectively carries over into language the marriage of granite and rainbow particular to Duncan’s life, his peculiar mix of vocational dedication, critical intelligence, narcissism, and unfettered aggression.
Well-researched, engaging, and well-written overall, Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus succeeds as narrative biography, but its structure raises the question: to what extent should the consideration of a writer’s life be separated from a critical, analytical account of their writing and intellectual development? It seems worth considering the damage a severance of life from art does to our understanding of the writer, especially given that Duncan’s work, like that of many other poets of his generation, deliberately flaunted the boundary between life and art. Perhaps who suffers most from Jarnot’s choice to write a purely narrative biography is the Robert Duncan who claims
It has seemed to me that I wrestle with the syntax of the world of my experience to bring forward into the Day the twisted syntax of my human language that will be changed in the contest even with what I dread there. And recently I have come to think of Poetry more and more as a wrestling with Form to liberate Form. The figure of Jacob returns again and again to my thought.
Given that this particular Duncan is largely absent from Jarnot’s account, we are lucky to live in an era when a long overdue series of Duncan-related publications has already started to be released. Held up for decades by legal confusion, Duncan’s Collected Works is now gradually being issued by University of California Press. So far two volumes have appeared: his Collected Early Poems and Plays, the first time his long apprenticeship has been available in one volume, and The H.D. Book, a thorough account of his mature poetics, long available only dispersed among small journals or in a samizdat internet edition. Andfor those who will no doubt leave Jarnot’s biography curious to hear exactly what Duncan’s infamous “talking jags” were really like, they can now turn to A Poet’s Mind: Collected Interviews with Robert Duncan, 1960–85, edited by Christopher Wagstaff and published by North Atlantic Books. Serious readers of Duncan’s work are going to want all of these publications in their libraries.
But Jarnot’s method is not without its advantages. Even if The Ambassador of Venus often fails to effect “that perpetual marriage of granite and rainbow” by focusing more on the facts than on the intangibles of Duncan’s personality, a greater emphasis on his mythic self-image would not have accomplished what Jarnot has succeeded in doing. Because we more often hear how others saw and experienced Duncan than how he understood himself, we’re slowly drawn into his orbit as spectators and allowed to participate especially in the feeling of community that surrounded him toward the end of his life. Drawing extensively from the medical journal Jess kept concerning Duncan’s health, Jarnot’s masterful rendering of Duncan’s long final illness and his sudden death leaves us in real shock. After being immersed in the repetitions of Duncan’s care, we’re left with only Jess’s terse final journal entry, his anguished words a kind of substitution for Duncan’s lifeless body. Jarnot’s skillful handling of our intimacy with Duncan draws upon all the complex dignity she’s given to his life partnership with Jess, and allows us to share something of the sharp grief of bereavement. We leave the biography’s final, heartbreaking chapters with a palpable sense of Duncan’s great value to Jess as well as to his friends, students, and colleagues. To mourn his loss with a sense of what he meant to those who loved him gives us a relation to Duncan that no other text can give. And in this respect, Jarnot has fashioned an offering fit for the altar of the ambassador from Venus.
Brian Teare, a 2020 Guggenheim fellow, is the author of six critically acclaimed books, most recently Companion Grasses, The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven, and Doomstead Days, winner of the Four Quartets Prize. His honors include the Birittingham Prize and Lambda Literay and Publishing Triangle Awards, as well as fellowships from the NEA, the Pew Foundation, and the MacDowell Colony. After over a decade of teaching and writing in the San Francisco Bay Area, and eight years in Philadelphia, he’s now Associate Professor at the University of Virginia, and lives in Charlottesville, where he makes books by hand for his micropress, Albion Books.
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