In 1962, I was stationed in Greenville, South Carolina, which was so thoroughly segregated “Black Americans” couldn’t go to the drive-in movie theater in their own car.
Even the dances on the base were segregated, though that was illegal since it was federal property. I had to tell the guards at the door that my great-great-grandmother was “colored,” which as far as I know she wasn’t, according to the way that term was used then, but then again, in “America” who knows what some of our ancestors may have been or where they came from or who they descended from (even though as far as I knew most of my grandparents or their parents had come over from Ireland for the most part, and in one case from Bavaria, but even there, in Ireland and Europe, there had been known cases of “black Africans” arriving and mixing with local populations since before the Romans…)
The idea wasn’t that I was telling the truth, the idea was that I was telling a lie to get into a dance where the girls I wanted to get to know hopefully were.
Anyway, my best friend at that base, I met one night in the cafeteria, where most of our fellow enlisted men sat at self segregated tables, except us, who gravitated toward each other and became instant brothers, as though we’d known each other all our lives. The fact that he was supposedly “black” and I was supposedly “white” was just part of the richness of life that we shared an excitement for. And we knew, as well as any, that the mixtures we all are overflow into each other, and that beneath all that there are commonalities between individuals that transcend all that anyway.
Over the years we would lose touch, and then unexpectedly run into each other in the oddest places—the student union at the U. of Iowa where I was using the G. I. Bill to attend the Writers Workshop and he was passing through while working for VISTA, or in the middle of several hundred thousand people on the Washington mall at an anti-Viet Nam war protest rally, or on a street in Cambridge when I spotted Gene, as I knew him, and he said he “felt my vibrations”—he was street selling heavy wooden sculptures he had carved, and I was with a group of fellow poets on our way to doing a reading there—Terence Winch, Ed Cox, Tim Dlugos and me. Gene joined us, after telling me he was making the carvings to raise money to travel to “the mother country”—Africa.
Recently we’ve been back in touch, taking up where we left off as though we’d never stopped talking since that first night in that cafeteria at Donaldson Air Force Base outside of Greenville, South Carolina. He found me through this blog. And I immediately added his web site where you can view some of his sculptures, but more importantly, for me, you can now view him at the beginning of making one.
If you go to his site , and then click on “Shrike 91807”—you will see a small film of Gene beginning a sculpture, first with a chain saw and then with a wood chisel and some kind of hammer I’ve never seen before. He’s doing it to jazz he selected, and if you surrender to the pace of the music and the carving, I think, like me, you will become mesmerized by the act of artistic creation, even at this early stage in the process.
The film has that same quality I’ve been writing about in many posts on this blog, so much so I can see it has become a theme, and a theme I am happy to be emphasizing—that the sensual excitement and soul satisfaction, the inspiration to express your own artistic ideas and feelings and compulsions, the certainty that being who you are and expressing it as fully as you can without harming others, is what first drew me to any of the arts and continues to, not who is making the most money or has the most critical acclaim or has been accepted by the academy or the top museums and etc. What matters is the act, the creative process, the dedication and commitment and willingness to fail and to re-do to hone to abandon yourself once more to the creative force that flows through all of us, but most of us forget or repress or have beaten or criticized out of us by the time we are no longer children.
That’s the kind of art that has always grabbed me, the kind that makes me want to do it too, that evokes the spirit and feeling of doing it as I have experienced it, or turns me on to a different way of experiencing creating something new. This little film, like that matchbox I wrote of with Ray DiPalma’s poems, or the selection of Terence Winch’s poems referred to in my last post, or Rain Worthington’s CD of her early music when she was unknown and at the beginning of something, or Erik Freidlander’s BLOCK ICE AND PROPANE, or Dale Herd’s early collections of short stories, or Doug Lang’s blog(s), and all the others I’ve mentioned, and the others I will mention as soon as I can get to them, this little film is emblematic of what I am so excited and satisfied by in all these works of art.
Since I haven’t seen him in decades, it is also a treat for me to feel his presence through the film, the same young man, a few years older than me, I met that night forty-five years ago. I would know him anywhere, more by feeling than sight, as he said he did me that afternoon in Cambridge thirty-five years ago.
Life! And art. Wherever it may be found. Cherish it.