John Herndon


Me and Ed

The day Ed Dorn died, I was driving from Austin to Santa Fea (sic) with Paul Christensen, a poet and professor at Texas A&M, for a conference where we were presenting. We talked about Ed off and on the whole way. We stopped by the Dabbs Railroad Hotel in Llano, because we thought we'd have breakfast there and I'd give the proprietor Gary Smith a copy of my new book, Road Trip Through the Four Spheres, which has a mention of him and his hotel, as well as a brief mention of Ed. (In fact, Ed was indirectly responsible for the publication of that book, since, when Dale Smith was moving back to Austin from San Francisco, Ed sent him my way, and he later published it under his Skanky Possum imprint.) The Dabbs is a funky bed and breakfast down a dirt road off Main Street overlooking the Llano River. When I stopped there three or four years before I was traveling with Ed, showing him part of the Hill Country. Gary is a hell of a funny storyteller, and when he and Ed got going the whole crowd in the breakfast room could barely eat a bite we were laughing so hard. I've wished a hundred times I had a tape recorder going. Well, Gary wasn't cooking that morning so Paul and I ended up at the Hungry Hobo. Whatever. Ed's spirit seemed to preside over the entire weekend. Saturday afternoon, when my turn came to speak, I got going on my favorite subject, compost, and hardly two sentences had come out of my mouth before the whole audience was cracking up. I don't think I've ever held an audience in my hand like I did that day. They were laughing before I got to my punch lines. By the time I was done, they were gasping for breath. They gave me a huge hand—I mean, the biggest hand you can get from 12 or 15 people. Later, during the book signing, some hippies came up to me and the first thing we were talking about Ed, whom they regarded as the finest mind and funniest sumbitch in the Inter-Mountain West, now that Abbey was dead. Then I drove back to Austin with John Campion, and we talked about Dorn, too, a good deal, though Campion has never been big on Dorn. It wasn't until I got home that I heard the news.

I first met Ed in 1987, I think. Some of us here in Austin were involved in an arts group called The Open Theatre, and we had a little money to spend. My dear friend and big-sister-figure Peggy Kelley suggested we bring Edward Dorn down from Boulder for a reading. Since Ed was one of the two or three finest poets working in English, I had never heard of him, so she loaned me her copy of Gunslinger. I thought it was pretty weird about the talking horse, and a bit dated, sort of like Zap Comics or the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, but I also saw that there was a lot more going on, and I was impressed with Dorn's ability as a writer, in particular as displayed in the Prologomenon to Book IIII, which struck me at the time as being quite worthy of Ezra Pound or Dorn's own teacher Charles Olson. Here occurs the indelible line "There are no degrees of reality," which I appropriated for an epigraph to a poem cycle, "Miracle of the Long Night." I was especially moved by the final lines—"over the endless sagey brush/ the moon makes her silvery bid/ and in the cool dry air of the niht/ the winde wankels across the cattle grid." That little touch of Chaucer says a lot about Ed. I suppose it must seem arrogant of me that I judged him to have achieved something worthwhile, by my lofty standards. So anyway we brought him to Austin, and for some reason I was delegated to pick him up at the airport. From the minute we met, there was a kind of kinship between us. I guess you could say we shared a taste for a good horse laugh. Ed had a way of throwing back his head and baring his fangs and laughing loud and long, and I guess I would just do the same. I've seen a number of folks hero-worship Ed, but I never could. Oh, I admired him and all, and I really enjoyed his company, his generosity of spirit, his ability to combine personal humility with the highest intellectual standards, his sharpness of perception and his absolutely infallible bullshit detector. But I guess I was too far down the road by the time I met him to make him into a hero. Ed was gentle and thoughtful and gracious and razor sharp. Frankly, I think that deep down he just wanted to be loved. But, at least about poetry, he wasn't willing to lie. He wasn't going to go along to get along and smile and say the swine wearing lipstick were pearls. That's enough to explain why he was targeted by not-very-talented-or-accomplished writers who personally benefit from the dumbing down and political irrelevance of so much modern American poetry. As he said in an interview with Dale Smith near the end of his life, if you have something pertinent to say, and say it, in simple, unequivocal language, you won't be the guy getting the grants and awards.

Gunslinger is a pop-art acid trip through the Four Corners that massacres the myths of the West and features a talking horse who rolls Tampico bombers. I always wondered what it was with Ed and talking animals. I mean, what is this, Mr. Ed? Then he started coming out with his Westward Haut series featuring a talking dog who is a private detective, and I thought, no, come on man. Another talking animal? Until I noted on rereading that the talking dog here is specifically transgenic. Ed was talking transgenic long before transgenic was cool, or rather not. He was always like that, the hippest guy in the room. Yet I was often fooled into underestimating him—which tells you something about me, I guess. When he mentioned he was working on a book about the South of France, I thought, right, just what we need, another book about garden fresh cooking and fields of lavender. I should have known better. I did know better. It was predictable that Ed wasn't going to do a predictable book. I had a good long laugh at myself later when he sent me some poems from his Languedoc Variorum, A Defense of Heresy and Heretics. (You can check some of this out in the Winter, 1996 edition of Sagetrieb.) Ed was ever the Protestant, a Prod on the prod. He was the second-best man on a pub crawl I've ever seen. The last time I saw Ed he was telling me about a class he was going to teach—The Poetic Sensibility. I must have shot my eyes up at that, because he grinned sort of funny and said, "The first thing I'm going tell 'em is to park their sensibility and learn a few things." We had a big laugh. Then he showed me his reading list—I mean, right on. Among other titles was my old professor Peter Green's new translation of the Argonautika of Apollonios Rhodios; I went out and bought that sucker as soon as I got home.

I looked to Ed as a source of literary analysis compressed to the point of a needle. In one letter, he called Gary Snyder's work "ecology lite." Much as I like Snyder, I thought that was pretty funny. (Gary later told me he thought Ed would be a really nice guy if he wasn't so mean.) In the same letter, Ed said Edward Abbey had nailed the ecological critique to those responsible. That led us to B. Traven—Ed's favorite of his novels was probably The Cotton Pickers while I was leaning toward The White Rose. I think it was on the phone, fresh back from a trip to California, that I asked about two authors we'd never discussed—Robinson Jeffers and William Everson. He derided Everson as fraud, but said Jeffers was the real deal The first day I met him, we were at a party after the reading and I asked him about Faulkner. He said with the most savage tone that if he ever saw anything by Faulkner in an anthology he was teaching out of, he would take a razor blade and cut it out. I love Faulkner, and I laughed my ass off at Ed's ferocity. At another party, much later, I asked him why he was never mentioned among the Beat poets, and he ravaged the Beats as a bunch of Left Coast freaks pretending to be Japanese. He was, he said, the last Euro-centric American. He thought of himself as a throwback to the Enlightenment. He said, "I believe in reason."

Ed gave me what was probably the most valuable gift I've ever received. I mean besides turning me on to Jim Thompson. In the late '90s, my college experienced a rare spasm of good sense and made it possible for professors, even lowly adjuncts such as myself, to receive financial assistance to travel to conferences and pursue their education (professional development, they called it), and even tied raises to such activity. A line in the "Subtext" section of the Languedoc Variorium—"a fast-food glutted and vaticanized, self-professed, wannabe Jesuit Arky like Bill, who forks over his Baptist lessons to the last bellicose extension of Rome"—gave me an idea of something I could study with Ed. (By the way, in looking for the above quote I came across this line regarding the inequities of transnational capital—"Hijack a Concorde with a kitchenknife would be the ultimate low-tech solution." How about that? That was written sometime before 1995. So when Condi Rice says no one could imagine the events of September 11, 2001, she's not only flat-out lying, but she's also dead wrong, rather unimaginative, and not very well read, apparently.) He seemed to see through the lies so clearly and so easily. I thought I'd try to set up some kind of independent study at Boulder for graduate credit. I'd con my college into paying for me to travel and visit and read some books with Ed to learn better how to cut through the nattering and blathering to see the real forces that were driving the juggernaut. So I called him up and we were scheming how we could pull off this little scam, and he raised an objection. He said, "I don't see you as a student, man, I see you as my peer." Of course, for him, this was probably just good manners, simple tact. But I felt so honored, well, I couldn't think of anything to say—and that's something of a rarity. I later found out that he said the same thing about me to others. I mean, for a person who has some degree of self-doubt—and frankly, who doesn't?—that little moment of personal grace has been an on-going source of strength.

I did manage to travel to Colorado and talk books with Ed. Anarchism was the subject of study, if you've haven't guessed. Ed would have been an anarchist, but he wasn't that much of a joiner. We shot pool. We talked about NPR vs. the BBC, and some jimson weed growing in the yard he'd tasted—nasty. We talked about Texas music—he was a fan, and I brought him some Cds. I was arranging a visit to the ostensible goal of this trip—the Rocky Mountain National Wildlife Refuge. I wanted to go because it's a Superfund site, an old nerve gas factory that abounds with eagles, hawks, falcons, pronghorn, deer and prairie dogs right across the street from a warehouse district near the airport. Ed said, "Of course, they go where we don't." You have to arrange a tour, and I was on the phone trying to talk my way in. The problem was they were short-handed because everyone was calling in sick. Ed said, "Of course, look where they work." When the time came I went alone. Ed wasn't feeling up to it. He didn't look too good.

One thing I learned from Ed was the importance of focusing on my own priorities. We brought him to Austin Community College in 1996, I think, and he hung around for the weekend. He gave a second reading in South Austin and we had a big reception and later repaired to a brew pub. Everyone wanted to talk to Ed, and he ditched all of us because he had to go meet a 19-year-old skate punk at Emo's. This is like his second-ever—and last, as it turned out—visit to Austin, and he has to meet a skater at a punk bar. I mean, if it was cool, Ed was there. Or possibly—wherever he was at, that was where the cool was at. I've articulated this as a theory of audience. I distinguish between the audience for my work, small as it is, and the audience(s) that I am in. Rather than worrying about the writers who are writing for the same audience I am, pitifully small though it is, I need to focus on the things that place me squarely in the audience, the concert I wouldn't miss, the magazine I have to subscribe to, the food I'm eating, the walk I'm taking. Because that's where my creative energy comes from. Thus if I am rereading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Catullus for the umpteenth time, or if I'm listening to Doc Watson or the Beatles again and again, that's what's important, not what my peers and colleagues are up to—unless you want to go out for a cold beer.

Well, Ed was sick a long time. As he put it, before his diagnosis, he had never been sick, but when he got sick, he got the big one. Pancreatic cancer usually kills within six months of detection, but Ed lived for two years post-diagnosis, surviving on pure meanness, he said. Rejecting the advice of the self-help gurus, Ed didn't embrace his cancer—he got good and mad. As he so rightly saw, cancer is political. And this was the final political attack on him. He started working on a series of poems called—are you ready for this?—Chemo Sabe. Yeah, that was Ed. Here's a terrific pun just lying there in the middle of the street, just waiting for someone to pick it up, and it took Ed to see it. The obvious reference to iconic Western pop art is typical, but so is the less obvious bi-lingual pun—chemo knows. It's become a commonplace among some of us here in Austin in this Bush-whacked era (remember, we knew him first) to say the two people we need the most are both dead: Ed Dorn and Bill Hicks. No shit. I usually throw in the name of that other Ed—Abbey.

I was so glad that in the last letter I sent him covering a poem I thought he'd get a kick out of, "Road Rage is All the Rage," I made it a point to tell him how highly he was regarded by many here in Austin, and how widely and well his influence was felt. I don't know if he ever got a chance to read it.