BOB KAUFMAN – LOVE IS THE CONDITION : NEITHER A REVIEW NOR A BIOGRAPHY
COMPILED BY TIM WHITE
Love is the condition
of Human Beings
Being Humans. – Come, Bob Kaufman
• Kaufman dances at his birthday party. The video clip is grainy, the sound quality not so good. The band plays a funky shuffle, the singer declaims as Kaufman sways between worlds.
The Ancient Rain wets my face and I am freed from hatreds of me that disguise themselves with racist bouquets. – The Ancient Rain, B.F
• African_American Surrealist poet, Will Anderson describes Kaufman as ‘a meteorite’ telling how, sometimes in the company of Philip Lamantia, he wandered the streets intent on ‘Kaufman sightings in North Beach’. On one occassion, as Kaufman stood close in front, Alexander describes seeing him ‘…disappear in front of my eyes’. Like all seers the poet has the ability to disappear into his or her own work.
• 1925, Robert Garnell Kaufman, born in New Orleans, the seventh child of thirteen. Runs away at age 13. Let that sink in… a homeless child, hanging on for dear life as the world’s wild and desperate waves crash around him. Hardly surprising that he spends 6 years in the merchant navy, sailing wide and desperate seas.
The ship slips from its mooring
Man and boy boy I have
sailed these seas
for thirty years –Sea Poem, B.K.
• During those early years at sea, he is encouraged to read the classics. What dreams might come reading The Odyssey as he sails dark and shoreless oceans to wander wide-eyed through strange cities?
For every remembered dream
There are twenty nighttime lifetimes – Celestial Hobo, B.K.
All these strange steets
I must find cities for – Jail Poems 7 , B.K.
• Six years circumnavigating the Earth provides an education and a half: ancient lands, vistas of literature art and culture, exotic flavours and rhythms.
‘A voyager arriving at a darkened opal port his verbal lenses honed by ingrown verbal preciseness by an absence of buried mechanics. I think of the inward Kaufman intimately floating through explosive anonymities, never once singed by mundane repetition or sequel.’ – Will Alexander
• Shipwrecked, not once but four times! Like Odysseus or Sinbad he survives, overcomes demons, ousts monsters before continuing his voyage. On foot – all eight of them, in a luminous submersible, by dog-sled, on a flaming unicycle, in a glowing plutonium canoe…Navigating by Earth-light he paddles through cloudscapes, naming sky continents, re-arranging constellations and raising storms of furious black genius as he goes.
•New York, Kaufman sets sails into uncharted waters: he discovers Hart Crane, Rimbaud, T.S. Eliot Federico Garcia Lorca (particularly his New York poems) Edgar Allen Poe among other exotic creatures. Among the writers he hangs out with, Burroughs , Ginsberg, some will remain obscure, some will be famous in their time. But he is not of this time. Time is too slow, too rudimentary, too mundane to register the passage of this particular meteor.
THE NIGHT THAT LORCA COMES
They fear you, Crane…you whispered aloft, pains they buried forever… – Hart…Crane, B.K.
The great rose of time turns slowly.
The dream flown on wings of silver bells,
beyond harpoon and screech owl,
gone on far beyond beyond.
The dream is on the heights and rising.
THE NIGHT THAT LORCA COMES
SHALL BE A STRANGE NIGHT IN THE
SOUTH, IT SHALL BE THE TIME WHEN NEGROES LEAVE THE SOUTH FOREVER,
GREEN TRAINS SHALL ARRIVE
FROM RED PLANET MARS
– THE NIGHT THAT LORCA COMES, BK.
•1947, Publishes letters in the National Maritime Union’s newspaper, The Pilot, condemning ‘the present hysterical campaign against the Communist Party’ by the House Committee for Un-American Activities.
• 1952, whereabouts unknown.*
BLACK POWER & REVOLUTION
Black Power was the real and beyond the real in which to move. Our African ancestry has enriched us with this marvelous surreality. – Ted Joans
•Kaufman unearths a treaure map whose X-Y-Z coordinates point to Planet JAZZ. The Aurora Borealis of boiling electrical midnights spin his compass and set his pulse racing down riptide highways, undeterred by sunken reefs of small towns, he sails on. Blasted by Cold War squalls he strides the storm.
For there in this headquarters of black revolution sat these long-sought comrades, blowing numbers. Illegal notes floated in air as thought they had a right to, floated right in his suddenly blossomed ears, following him to the bandstand. – Hawk Lawler: Chorus, BK.
• ‘That was it! That was his appeal, his attraction. He was free, loose, weightless, yet not in need of wings. In need of nothing but his will to be free.’ – Jazz, Frank London Brown
SAN FRANCISCO – ‘I FEEL AT HOME IN THIS NEIGHBOURHOOD…’
I am going to hell and hear some good jazz. – from Blues for Hal Waters, BK.
All these strange streets
I must find cities for,
Thank God for Beatniks.
– Jail Poems, BK.
•1957 relocates to San Francisco.*
Within city streets teeming with ghosts he lays down the rhythmn track the Beats will follow: …Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlenghetti.
Dancing winds will sing for you,
Ancient gods will pray for you,
A poor lost poet will love you,
As stars appear
In the dark
– Response (for Eileen), B.K.
• 1958, Meets Eileen Singer. They travel through Mexico before returning to San Francisco. Reads poetry at Coffee Gallery.
• Much like Charlie Parker, for whom he names his son, drugs and alcohol are needed as insulation against the madness seething around him, the white-hate blood-lust of the crazed House Committee for UN-American Activities, his dismissal from the NMU when it falls in line with the MacCarthyism of the CLO and black bans its most active members – includingn him. The FBI and the HCUA ‘red scare’ will destroy hundreds of lives among them Kaufman’s. A passionate union organizer, his heart full of hope, he leaps into the fray fighting for a better world and his youthful idealism is brutally crushed.
Arriving back in San Francisco to be greeted by a blacklist and eviction, I am writing these lines to the responsible non-people. One thing is certain I am not white. Thank God for that. It makes everything else bearable. – Oct. 5th, 1963. BK.
POET NAILED ON THE HARD BONE OF THE WORLD
The Poet nailed on
the hard bone of this world
his soul dedicated to silence
is a fish with frog’s eyes
Out with his poems, back
to the pyramid of bones
from which he is thrust
His death is a saving grace
Creation is perfect – I am a Camera, B.K.
ADOLF HITLER MOVED…TO SAN FRANCISCO
• As a black man, a jew, public figure, non-conformist, unrepentant and outspoken critic of the status quo, poet of freedom and imagination, part of an inter-racial couple, he is relentlessly targeted by San Francisco police. He can frequently be found, bleeding and beaten, in the city’s police cells.
One day Adolf Hitler had nothing to do.
Adolf Hitler was very bored, even with Eva.
So he moved to San Francisco, became an ordinary
Policeman, devoted himself to stamping out beatniks. – Jail Poems, B.K.
•1959, Brutally assaulted by an SFPD police. City’s newspapers give front page to rioting against cops in North Beach.
IN THE EYES OF JAZZ
Jazz listen to it at your own risk.
At the beginning, a warm dark place…
– War Memoir, B.K.
•America mad with past infamies, Jim Crow, and post-war political repressions, mad despite the freedoms it names, lays claim to, shames and withholds from African-Americans …Kaufman finds a treaure map whose X-Y-Z coordinates point to a planet named, JAZZ.
•’Arrested 39 times for poetic brilliance via bravura he was the absolute contrary of the sterile academic scrounging for golden verbal eggs. Never concerned with immediate notoriety he passed across unerring emptiness as a poetic lahar sweeping in all directions at once. He volcanically en-veined the Beats as a mirage enveloped Surrealist; not as a formal poet, but one like Rimbaud, who embodied butane.’ – Will Alexander
The blues blow life, as life blows fright;
Death begins, jazz blows soft on the night,
Too soft for ears of men whose minds
Hear only the sound of death, of war,
Of flagwrapped cremation in bitter lands.
– War Memoir, B.K.
•Kaufman charts his course. In the aurora borealis of boiling electrical midnights his compass spins, his pulse races down riptide highways, dodging small town sunken reefs of hostility, touched but unfazed by geo-political Cold War storms he sails on into the heart of the cosmos.
•’Adapting the harmonic complexities and spontaneous inventions of the bebop to poetic euphony and meter, he became the quintessential jazz poet.’ – poet Raymond Foye
Hidden in the eyes of jazz
Secretly balling, against time
I see cabbage-eye, malignant successes…
– San Francisco Beat
•We’re reminded it’s Kaufman’s celestial rhythms which ignite the Beats. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso et al. follow behind, eddies in his wake.
• 1959, co-founder and editor, along with his wife Eileen, of the first edition of the seminal Beat publication Beatitude. City Lights Books publishes Abomunist Manifesto. Publishes Second April with City Lights Books, reads at Co-existence Bagel Shop.
Whether I am a poet or not, I use fifty dollars worth
of air every day, cool.
In order to exist I hide behind stacks of red and blue
– Afterwards, They Shall Dance, BK.
• Every line as evocation; each breath an immensity. Images breach the ice-floe, lifting clear of the ocean floor to howl love in profane silver-shadow emanations at a beach of dried skulls. Every echo is a reversal. Every jazz-slick note a profanation of dead religions. Every melodic shift, the laughter of a full-moon eating god’s entrails.
‘PEACE IN OUR TIME’
SENT THE WORLD REELING INTO WORLD WAR TWO.
BUT THIS IS NOT IT,
THIS IS A MESSAGE
FROM THE CLOUDS,
FROM THE STARS
FROM THE SKY
THIS IS NOT THE END
A THOUSAND MEN LAY DOWN THEIR GUNS,
UNTIL THE PEACE IS AN ORDER
SO MANY DEAD WHO DO NOT SEE
THE VINDICTIVE BUDDHA,
THIS IS THE PLACE WE HAVE COME TO…
– PEACE BE WITH YOU, BK.
• During World War Two when Kaufman serves as a US Merchant Marine, the job was considered extremely dangerous, suffering the highest rate of casulaties of any service in the war with over fifteen hundred ships sunk. – Raymond Foye
BLUENESS, THE COLOUR OF LOVE
• 1958, Bob and Eileen marry in Mexico
•13th October, 1959Eileen and Bob’s son, Robert Parker, is born.
•1960 Appears in Ron Rice’s film The Flower Thief. Publishes Does the Secret Mind Whisper? Reads at Harvard and returns to New York City. Reads frequently at Gaslight Café, at the Paperback Book Gallery and also the Living Theatre. Arrested for ‘walking on grass’ imprisoned then forcibly relocated to Bellevue psychiatric hospital forced to undergo shock treatment.
•1964-65 Eileen Kaufman preserves Bob’s notes and spontaneous poems, writing them down on napkins and matchboxes. She compiles and edits Solititudes Crowded with Loneliness while a trip to Mexico.
• ‘Without Eileen Kaufman, there is no Bob. It is most likely that he would not have been published and would have slipped into obscurity.’ – John Geluardi, author-journalist
• ‘I think every artist needs someone like that in their life. I was the one who talked to publishers. He had no patience or gift for that. With Bob it was clear to me that this man was a genius. I was glad to stand behind him.’ – Eileen Kaufman, interview the San Francisco Chronicle (1996)
SOLITUDES CROWDED WITH LONELINESS
What is mine
a man alone, imprisoned by whiteness
a man alone who defies the white screams of a white death
– Aimé Césaire. Notebook for a Return to my Native Land
• ‘One felt his solitude when one was with him. It was palpable, and almost all of his remarks to me down through the years were about this place. ”I live in a well of loneliness”…His silence remains a witness to an eternal truth. It was self-imposed isolation, his need for the innermost cave where his sentience might be itself. It is where his poetry came alive without ego or worldly attachment.’ – Raymond Foye, poet and friend
• ‘You’re a poet. You can’t ever be alone. You have poetry.’ Remembering Bob, Neeli Cherkovski
• 1963 – 73, following the assassination of President Jack Kennedy enters a period of silence.
• May 31st 1973, Breaks his silenceat the Palo Alto Art Center where he recites from T.S. Eliot’s
drama Murder in the Cathedral and his own poem All Those Ship that Never Sailed.
• Kaufman’s drug and alcohol issues make domestic life impossible and he and Eileen separate.
• 1975, after years of estrangement, Bob and Eileen renew their vows at Mount Tamalpais in Marin.
• Despite the separation and difficulties of maintaining contact with Bob, Eileen continues to support him and champion his work.
• Let’s imagine for a moment that love is a given – that the world will not crush its first tender shoots when it appears. That it can survive storm and drought. Let’s try to believe that it can withstand the pain tearing it apart from the inside as well.
All the cats who sing happy songs
Have metallic teaers in their green eyes
– All the Cats are Writing Popular Songs, Man, BK.
TODAY THE ANCIENT RAIN FALLS
• 1979, Raymond Foye rescues Kaufman’s manuspscripts from ruins of burned out Dante Hotel.
• 1981, The Ancient Rain, edited by Raymond Foye, published by New Directions.
The Ancient Rain shall bring death to those who love and feel only themselves. The Ancient Rain is all colours, all forms, all shapes, all sizes. The Ancient Rain is a mystery known only to itself. The Ancient Rain filled the seas. The Ancient Rain killed all the dinosaurs and left one dinosaur skeleton to remind the world that the Ancient Rain is falling again.
– The Ancient Rain, BK.
• 12th January 12th 1986, Bob Kaufman dies of pulmonary empyhsema in San Francisco. A traditional New orleans-style funeral parade is held in his honour in North Beach.
• 26th January, 2015 Eileen Kaufman passes away. Fragments of her autobiography, Who Wouldn’t Walk with Tigers, has appeared in anthologies such as Women of the Beat Generation. Sadly, the manuscript appears to be lost.
•2015, Billy Woodberry’sbio-documentaty of Kaufman, And When I die I Won’t Stay Dead, released to critical acclaim.
No, I am not anything that I am not.
– I, Too, Know What I am Not, BK.
Daniel Pinchbeck 1995, Children of the Beats, New York Times Magazine (online)
John Geluardi 2015, Remembering Eileen Kaufman, The Beat Museum (online) (www.kerouac.com/remembering-eileen-Kaufman/)
Sam Whiting, 2015, Eileen Kaufman, Beat poet and Widow of Bob Kaufman dies, SF Gate (online)
Cherkovksi, N., Foye, R, Swindell, T. 2019, The Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman, City Lights Books, San Francisco
Bob Kaufman is Dancing on his Birthday (rare footage), Youtube via Cloud House Poetry Fb (@ArchivesCloudHousePoetry)
Franklin Rosemont & Robin D.G. Kelley 2010, Black, Brown, & Beige – Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora, University of Texas Press
Billy Woodberry (director, writer), 2015 And When I Die I won’t Stay Dead, Rosa Filmes, US-Portugal (film)
Will Alexander Celebrates Bob Kaufman, San Francisco Public Library Youtube via SFPL (www. SFPL.org)
Aimé Césaire 1995, Notebook for A Return to My Native Land, Blood Axe Book