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Elective Affinities:
Philip Lamantia and Laurence Weisberg
By Allan Graubard

True encounters mark us. They erect a time within time, a time of their own that remakes the present in the image of time lived completely. And should such encounters develop into friendship, a friendship yet scored by the marvelous, and all the potencies that give birth to the marvelous - this ludic-oneiric mutation that opens up within and between us a precise hunger for the poetic in life - a hunger that feeds off the disproportion between desire and circumstance as it seeks, in the same movement, to transform that disproportion in images of desire, images that desire in life the exceptional freedom of desire, desire’s desire, then that friendship is something, and something worth pursuing. For in its pursuit the imagination of desire will come to embody the give and take we expect from those we love, admire, doubt and despair of; those we sustain in an intimacy that clarifies the time we live.

Philip Lamantia and Laurence Weisberg shared such a friendship. Two poets, one older, one younger, meet in San Francisco. They make surrealism their compact, poetic revolt their means. For three decades they give to the other an essential respect, open access, a sympathy that valorizes and revalorizes their work, their play as poets. That the older poet carries an established legacy with ties to the history of surrealism in the United States, and which when they first meet he has returned to, colors their exchange, yes, but as a measure for the younger poet to reaffirm what he alone has revealed. That the younger poet finds in his elder an uncertain verification of how to prevail, amidst the great and tragic turmoil of living, and not give in, whether by deed or expression, to the fetters of a reality that crash against us, will play itself out in the years to come, as it does for anyone else with a similar gift. That the older poet will recognize in the younger a distinctive passion for a poetry that infuses, and is infused by, life will anchor him more forcefully yet to an audacity and exuberance that youth compresses and adventure reveals.

It is not, in this sense, a friendship struck by hierarchy other than that shared in the heat of exchange. And as the conversations, games, walks and mutual projects flourish, with sudden detours provided by stimulants, hallucinogens and other like drugs, the interchange distinguishes their uniqueness as men and as poets.

In those first years, 1973-1976, their friendship arcs against their commitment to the surrealist group in San Francisco tied to the journal Arsenal: Surrealist Subversion, published in Chicago. After this period their friendship will take another turn but not in its formative qualities. For between them remains the authentic voice that both possess, and that both recognize both possess. And while one will accept a public silence (rarely broken) that the other has less need of but does not disdain, they will take pleasure in their friendship beyond the conceits that color their actions.

A pivotal rapport? Certainly. That early on it assumes the form of a project within a larger, collective circumstance will not thereafter prevent its affective qualities from enduring. That both poets will recognize here the importance of these qualities that neither has injured, despite their disagreements, will not prevent them from upholding such qualities. Does this mean that, by this or that decision, the one has lessened his tie to the other and, in recognizing or not recognizing it, damaged their worth toward each other? I cannot say. That I am left with the notion that, like all too many of us, their avoiding certain subjects, including religion, did not work to their advantage, taking its toll in their later years, is something, again, I have little reason to doubt but no way to prove. Nor would it do me any good for both are gone; death having claimed one too early - Weisberg at 51 in March 2003 -- the other, as is due - Lamantia at 77 in March 2005.

There are certain meetings that burst into a friendship by which we measure our accomplishments and our failures, our pleasure and our pain, our happiness and our despair. In some vital way, perhaps more at one time than another, they enter into the calculations we make about who we are and why we live as we do. They are hermae that rise at crossroads, signets of place gained and lost along the way. And as we stand by them we see ourselves in the shadows they throw, shadowy mirrors enlivened by a subtle enervation, a hilarious tension, a spasm of memory, an articulate fever, an unknown anticipation drawn from the drama of day to night’s insomniac nerve, from the flowers of joy that true poets know, and in knowing, know that is hat they know, and hunger to know…

 

 

   
   

 

 

 


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