ON “DEAD LIONS” BY A D WINANS…REVIEWED BY NEELI CHERKOSKI
(Published by Punk Hostage Press)
Poet A D Winans is a native San Franciscan who came of age during the heyday of the beat generation in His hometown. The beat poets along with Kenneth Patchen and Charles Bukowski had quite an influence on the direction he would take in his own poetry. It’s a poetry of the streets and a poetry of the common language, going back to Walt Whitman. Over the years, Winans has written about some of his literary heroes, always with passion, always with a deep understanding of how the tradition of poetry is passed hand-to-hand down the generations. It is a great moment to see a few of his essays, or portraits, collected in one volume.
Dead Lions is aptly named. Winans has chosen to write of Alvah Bessie, that heroic screenwriter who was one of the Hollywood 10, a victim of the Communist scare of the 1950s engendered by Senator Joseph McCarthy and others. There are tributes to three poets as well, Bob Kaufman, Jack Micheline, and Charles Bukowski. One might read the text and feel as if they had been wandering through a portrait gallery. That is how keenly Winans does his job. I came away from reading this book with a new sense of all of these people. The three poets I knew well. Bessie is known to me only from a distance in the context of the persecution.
What really makes Dead Lions an important book is the intimacy Winans brings to the page. It’s that same sense of the intimate that is in his own poetry. Kaufman, Micheline, and Bukowski we’re true literary outsiders. For each of them it was a long pull to be given notice from the literary Community. Winans knew Bukowski in the days when he was a creature of the little poetry journals and a major figure in the Mimeo revolution of the 1960s, which now seems so long ago. He knew Bob Kaufman in North Beach hanging out with him at bars and cafes. He was closest to Jack Micheline and that comes through in his book. For Winans Micheline’s defiance of literary propriety was an important signal to younger poets. Once again, Whitman is echoed. Jack’s “barbaric yelp” was the ticket to freedom from academe.
I was particularly taken with Winans’ portrait of Bob Kaufman. He offers a good deal of biographical information that one rarely finds. He writes, “Kaufman considered himself a Buddhist and believed that a poet had a call to a higher order.” As one of Bob’s intimate friends, I remember him quoting from ancient Buddhist texts as we sat around the kitchen table in my apartment. He was never loud about it. Winans tells us, “He was an oral poet who didn’t write for publication or expectations of fame and fortune, which is what drew me to him.’
This is romanticism and it is charming to witness. I think of Nelson Algren’s book title, “A Walk on the Wild Side.” It reminds me of the poets Winans admires. He wraps up the Kaufman piece with a description of the pubic outpouring after his death as more than one hundred people marched through North Beach in tribute to the poet’s life.
Winans has written extensively on Bukowski. Once again, it was the rebellion in “Buk” that Winans admires, and he pays him tribute. This piece is filled with up- close and personal recollection. Winans indulges in a bit of psychological profiling, including Bukowski’s mistrust of friends. In contrast, he writes: “His first book, Post Office, was written in nineteen days. The book is filled with laughter that shines through the pain of working at a dead-end job that kills a man’s spirit and physically breaks him down. I know! I worked for the San Francisco Post Office for five years.” It was after reading this novel that Winans became an avid fan. The snapshot of the times he spent hanging out with Bukowski are memorable, including a jaunt into one of the famous San Francisco watering holes, Gino and Carlos, a venerable poet’s haunt. He recounts taking Bukowski to the Caffe Trieste in North Beach. The L A. bard would not enter. He just commented that the habitués were sitting there waiting for something to happen. “Hank, “as Bukowski was known to his friends, comes through with full flavor. One finishes the essay and wishes for more. Perhaps Winans will find the time to expand this interesting portrait of the raucous poet.
Jack Micheline comes through as the quintessential literary barbarian. Some biographical information quickly gives way to anecdote. Jack is plunked onstage by Winans and we watch him in court and jail, in one bar after another amid quotes from the man himself. Winans has a good memory and may have scribbled some of Jacks words down in a notebook. Describing the old days to A D. Micheline said, “Poetry was everywhere. Every day Kaufman and I read a poem. It is not part of history, but I was arrested for pissing on a police car the same night Kaufman was arrested outside the Co-Existence Bagel Shop.” It was the fervor of Micheline’s attack on our safe and sound society that Winans admires, and it comes through remarkably well. It is another one of those useful handbooks of poetic sensibility, with the added bonus of having insights into the life of Alvah Bessie.
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