Tuesday, April 17, 2012
THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF JOE BRAINARD (AND READING)
If you don't know who Joe is, or was, look him up. For me he was an intimate friend who I loved and am sorry I didn't stay in touch better after I moved to L.A. in the early '80s. Though we did correspond a few times before he passed almost twenty years ago. I miss him. Fortunately I have a few art works that he gave me over the years, as well as his letters and art work he sent with them, and of course his writing.
The most famous thing he wrote was his long poem "I Remember" began as a series of memories in a clear and almost childlike honesty that immediately caught everyone's attention among the poets and artists I knew and cared about. From the first slim book (or what people call "chapbook") came several more, eventually collected into one volume which has been reprinted over the years in various editions, and now in the new COLLECTED WRITINGS.
That alone would make the book worthwhile getting. But then there's his unique and mostly early short "fiction" (in quotes because there is almost always an element of not just "truth" but of Joe putting himself and some current experience or observation or question of his into the fictional story) as well as very short essays and many diary and diary-like entries.
It's almost impossible to summarize, or even characterize, what makes Joe's writing so unique. The immediate impact is that it isn't, that it's generic, him playing with or off various genres like children's or young adult's stories, or almost parodying more adult prose like art criticism or philosophical essays. Then again a lot are simply straightforward diary dailiness reporting, where he shares what a day has been like, almost always including comments on art or making art as well as writing and writers and reading other writers.
The basic feeling is that after just a few pieces you know Joe, or at least his personality, or think you do. He seems so amazingly accessible and forthright and modestly sure of his taste and take on things, and willing to expose his fears and moods and questioning of given attitudes and beliefs, though often freely honest about his lack of knowledge or sometimes ambiguous feelings about people and things as well.
Most of the selections in THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF JOE BRAINARD are too long to quote here as examples, but I'm going to just open to a few pages at random and quote what I notice:
"I remember the disappointments of picking up a developed roll of film at the drugstore.
I remember jumping beans, and how disappointing they were. (Lazy.) A few flip-flops and that was that.
I remember egg salad sandwiches "on white" and large cherry Cokes, at drugstore counters.
I remember drugstore counter stools with no backs, and swirling around and around on them.
I remember when the floor seemed a long way down."
That's one of the most banal selections I could have found, but see how it moves from the first two being connected by disappointment, the next two connecting to the drugstore theme in the first, and then the last a combination of all the previous themes so succinctly captured in that final one bringing us right back to our own childhood satisfactions and disappointments (in drugstores!).
Here's a diary like entry:
"Went over the hill today to do some shopping with Bob and Bobbie. Driving home, feeling abstractly sad, alone in the back seat (to great radio music up front). Bobbie gave me her hand for the rest of the way home. (Thank you.)
Nice to know that you can still be a bit embarrassed.
Thank you for that too."
Many of the people he writes about are well known now and some were then as well, at least in the whatever-we-call-it-now ("indie?" "alternative?" etc.) art and literary worlds. There's art too, reproductions of drawings and illustrations [and his version of comix, like his great 1960s original PEOPLE OF THE WORLD: RELAX!—the title of which may be the best slogan for a poster not only of the 1960s but a lot of other times too].
It's definitely a one-of-a-kind volume and totally unexpected and unlike any other Library of America book. Worth getting just for that.