Thursday, May 24, 2012

Remembering Davenport

Guy Davenport via Wikipedia
Two Visits with Guy Davenport
(Followed by an Angel)

W.C. Bamberger

In 1991 I drove alone to Lexington, Kentucky in a borrowed Dodge van (borrowed in fact from my ex-wife, Janet) with layers of Abstract Expressionist paintings on paper shifting around in the way-back. My goal: to politely strongarm two writers I admired, neither of whom had I previously met. The most daunting of the two was Guy Davenport, classical scholar, painter, professor at the University of Kentucky, brilliant critic and author of some of the most unusual and beautifully written fictions I’d ever read.

I had recently reprinted Guy’s book length poem Flowers & Leaves. In the course of our business and ever after, Guy was unfailingly gracious; if I wrote him a letter he would feel obligated to respond, however busy he might be. Over the years I learned to end my letters with “No response necessary,” to save him the bother. If I phoned and interrupted him he would always end our conversation by saying, “Bless you for calling.” On this trip I was deliberately taking advantage of this graciousness: I knew that Guy had said, more or less, “I like people, but not meeting them.” He disliked having fans invade his privacy. When Guy had suggested to Erik Reece, a former student, that he send me a manuscript, I’m sure he hadn’t realized he was opening himself up to such a visit from me. But Guy did no readings, had given up participating in conferences, never traveled (in fact he had never had a driver’s license), and very rarely gave interviews. If one wanted to know the man behind the brilliant work, a home invasion was the only open route.

Erik, who has since gone on to well-deserved renown for his books Lost Mountain and An American Gospel, was at that time a young poet whose first book I was planning to publish with my small press. I was hoping to strongarm Erik into choosing a painting by Roland Rayburn, a painter I knew, for the cover of the collection, My Muse Was Supposed to Meet Me Here. This would likely be easy enough; I was, after all, publishing his book. But the shamelessly acquisitive side of me was as engaged as the literary: I was also in hopes of convincing Guy to sell me one of his amazing paintings – I had tried by mail but he was dismissive of the idea, resolutely so it seemed.

Once I’d checked into my motel, I called Erik and went to his home. We sorted through the piles of paintings until he found one he thought would fit, and – to make myself feel like a real publisher – I gave him a (tiny) advance on the book. We travelled to a nearby Shaker colony, a wonderful experience. Erik also talked me into trying a Subway sandwich, a much less wonderful experience.
Memory grows hazy after 21 years, but I’m reasonably sure that I went to Davenport’s home by myself just after dinnertime, with Erik joining us later. Guy met me at the door, dressed casually, his glasses dangling around his neck on a string. He showed me around his home: pointing out such treasures as Louis Zukofsky’s chair (which a friend had surreptitiously saved from a dump when the poet’s son had tried to throw out all his things to keep them from just such collectors), the Picasso prints he had salvaged from a printer’s “reject” barrel, the trestle-style writing table he had built, and more. We sat and talked about his work, and Guy was at once serious about the ideas inherent in it – Charles Fourier’s regimented utopianism, Pound’s “rose in the steel dust,” Buckminster Fuller’s insistence that “nature doesn’t use pi,” the cosmology of the African Dogon people – and self-deprecating about himself. A number of his stories and some of his art include naked children, images Guy used to explore the tipping points between childhood and adulthood, innocence and sexuality, utopian community and society’s fallen state, and these images had proven controversial. At one point Guy said, approximately, “Carloads of Yalies drive down here from New Haven and are disappointed to find no tow-headed boys wandering nude about the house. Those who read literature literally are always going to be disappointed.”

Guy also told stories about writers he had known – Zukfosky’s phobia of drafts, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s shell-shock induced fear of enclosed spaces, which meant in order for him to be able to ride in a car he had to keep the door open and drag his foot along the road as the car slowly proceeded. But what made the drive worthwhile, what made me (however guiltily) excuse myself for intruding into Guy’s personal space, was the private art show he gave me. Walking up and down the stairs to the second floor again and again, Guy brought down, one or two at a time, a few dozen of his paintings: portraits of writers and thinkers from James Joyce to Randolph Bourne (who observed that “War is the health of the state”) to Wittgenstein; collage paintings that juxtaposed shells with birds or Roman coins or words in Danish. There were also geometric abstractions, grids and color fields and stripes, with a wonderful vibrating life and structural balance that engaged eye and mind equally. I asked (again) if he ever exhibited or sold his paintings. He told me a story about his department head “ordering” him (his word) to have an exhibit at the university, and of what a humiliating experience it had been. There was a “don’t ask” look in his eye – a resolute “don’t ask” look. In the end I didn’t ask, my own graciousness eking out a victory over my stalking acquisitive side. A few years later Erik wrote a long study of Guy’s art that was published by New Directions with a number of beautiful reproductions of the works; I bought two copies. This is as close as I ever came to owning any of Guy’s art.

Erik joined us after sunset, and we spent the rest of the evening discussing books, ideas and art while sitting before the fire Guy built in his fireplace. When I left he said, “Bless you for visiting.”
A few years after this visit, I intruded again. I spent a long afternoon negotiating endless construction zones through southern Ohio and on into Kentucky in my ex-wife Janet’s van – but this time she rode with me. I had told Guy I planned to arrive in Lexington around 3:00 in the afternoon and would call him then. With the construction delays in this pre-cellphone time, it was nearly 5:00 when I called from the motel. Guy was not happy. I explained about the construction, but it seemed he had stopped work hours earlier than he had wanted to, in preparation for my visit, and this time was now irrevocably lost. I could hear in his voice that I would not easily be excused for this. I made matters worse by asking if he could give me directions from the motel to his house. “Me? I am the last person to ask how to negotiate Lexington in a car!”

When we finally made it to Guy’s house he was graciousness itself – to Janet. She was a children’s librarian, and they discussed children’s books. “Children’s book illustrations are art!” Guy told Janet, with a beaming smile. They discussed Maurice Sendak; I said little. When I did speak, Guy repeatedly corrected my pronunciation of foreign names (“Claude Lay-vee Stroowwwss” was particularly vehement), faulted my memory, and generally brushed off any and all of my thoughts. After a time, however, this flinty exterior was put aside. Guy’s voice trembled as he talked about a book that told the story of children from a Polish orphanage being marched to a train, pennants flying, to be taken away and gassed by the Nazis. A tear came to his eye when he played a CD of a young countertenor singing beautiful lieder. I cautiously said little. By the end of our visit Guy’s pleasure in meeting Janet had warmed him to the point where he gave us each a half-hug when we left.

I felt badly about the events of this visit for days, even after receiving a short note from Guy graciously thanking me for visiting. But then I suddenly realized that I had gotten exactly what I had wanted from the visit. I had wanted to get to know “the man behind the work,” and this I had done. I had been given a privileged glimpse of the Guy Davenport I most admired, the dedicated, deeply intellectual writer, translator and painter reacting to having been robbed of a good half day of work time for the sake of having two people sit in his living room and ask (for him uninteresting, because about him) questions. Readers of Guy’s essays and of his few interviews can get just a glimpse of this jealously-guarded dedication, the tetchiness of the brilliant mind having its time wasted, but I’d been privileged to experience it first hand. A fan’s (mildly masochistic?) dream come true.
I never visited Guy again. One of our last exchanges by mail came a few weeks before his death from lung cancer. Art was again involved: I had bought a small ink drawing of an angel by British artist Stanley Spencer, a favorite of Guy, though Guy didn’t own any of Spencer’s work. When I heard he was ill, I mailed him the little drawing. He wrote back, “There are no words adequate to thank you for such a wonderful gift, so I will not belittle it by even trying.” Gracious to the end.
W. C. Bamberger is the author, editor or translator of more than a dozen books, including the novel On the Backstretch. In 2007 he edited Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters for W. W. Norton. Recent publications include a SF story co-written with his daughter, and his translation of two early essays by Gershom Scholem. He lives in Michigan.

Copyright 2012 by W.C. Bamberger