Reading Douglas Woolf’s Ya! & John-Juan

Context N°12

by Robert Creeley

Douglas Woolf was an uncannily reflective person—as though he chose to take his color and shape from the surrounding world rather than to force upon it his own determinations and judgement. However, what he did exercise, unremittingly, was an acute perception, his witness, his recognition, his fact in being there, wherever there was or might be. In the seeming chaos of his incessant shifts of place and employment, he was persistently and minutely practical, however unlocated he may have seemed to others in more usual lives. Choosing to be a writer or, more to the point, finding that he was a writer and had to be one, he practiced an almost religious avoidance of other, over-reaching patterns such as professions or familiar vocations must argue. The doctor or the carpenter is real, long before anyone is actually there as a specific person. Just so the teacher, the nurse, the soldier or anyone society has thus made a name for. There is no name simply for Douglas Woolf. Even that name itself seems often curiously unreal. If I am to be responsible to this extraordinary person’s life, I must briefly rehearse its details, such as I know them, a scatter of particular memories of our all too few meetings, letters, mutual friends such as his exceptional Grove Press editor, Donald M. Allen, others such as the writers Edward Dorn, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, the people who were his family. In some ways Douglas Woolf was as elusive as the proverbial woodland creature, known to be there but rarely if ever seen. I know he was son of a successful New York businessman, that his mother had difficult bouts of mental illness, being occasionally hospitalized at McLean’s near Boston, that he had driven an ambulance for the American Field Service in North Africa during the Second World War and had also been in the Army Air Force, that he had gone to Harvard, dropping out before graduation. But having said that, the trail grows cold or rather grows increasingly singular—-Good Humor man in Tucson, sweeper of a municipal racetrack in Spokane, householder in an abandoned miner’s cabin in Wallace, Idaho. I was in touch with him in all these situations but it was very hard to join the symbolic dots so as to make some defining picture.

Our first contact was entirely by chance. Living with my family in Mallorca in the early fifties, together with my wife, Ann, I had begun the Divers Press, which published collections of poetry and translation by Paul Blackburn, Charles Olson, Irving Layton, Robert Duncan and myself among others. I thought of the press as a chance to publish that work of contemporaries which had all too little hope of being published. But other than the first edition of my stories, The Gold Diggers, we had found no prose. Then, altogether unexpectedly, a manuscript arrived in the mail, a novel no less, Hypocritic Days by Douglas Woolf.

In some ways it was an obvious “first novel” insofar as the construction had a wandering impulse at times. There was no tight, determining hand seeing to all details if that’s ever the imagined necessity. But the people in the story were almost heart-breakingly present, the ex-jockey father, Chick, with the large son, Charles, the tenderness and confusion between them, the nudges of affection and pain—”Chick moved silently around him with sideways face to remove his dish. ‘Sit down, there, Big Fella,’ he said, ‘we still have our dessert.’ ” It was so gentle, so particular to ways people live together, and if it was otherwise the complex passage from teenager to adult in the proposedly garish world at Hollywood’s edge, it was in the intimate focus, the unobtrusive detailing of gesture, conversation, place, that Douglas Woolf ’s genius was clear. One gets some sense of this, thinking of what he’s said of his need to write: “If there were only one reader left in the world, I would write to that one as lovingly as I do now.” “Lovingly” is the apt word. There is always a story to tell in his writing, always the people to be found there as I did “Chick” and “Charles.” So we published the book in January, 1955, in several hundred copies, a compact format with a cover by the Japanese poet Katue Kitasono, the font our standby Mercedes with Futura heads. It was hardly a best seller. I remember being delighted that someone in Connecticut ordered twenty copies. It turned out it was his mother. The novel itself is dedicated to his wife Yvonne.

Perhaps the reason for his unsuccessful sales is that it has never been easy, and may, in fact, be impossible, to make a simple characterization for this writer. At times he is compared to Jonathan Swift but that seems to me displacing of both. Woolf is not angry, or certainly not in the same way as Swift. His intent is not, as I read him, satire in the first place anymore than it was Richard Brautigan’s, who shares with Douglas Woolf both the insistent gentleness of manner and also his “loner” life. If one were to make them persons of a group, to include Mark Twain, Nathaniel West, Stephen Crane and Malcolm Lowry for starters, then perhaps one gets a little closer. However “comic” these writers may at times seem, they are not laughing. They all seem finally to be just where they have placed their diverse characters, in a world without appeal, without relief or response.

In like sense, I never felt that Douglas Woolf was making anything up, certainly not as some fantasized or invented “reality.” Given the order of things, “worlds” such as those to be found in either Ya! or John-Juan will happen as facts of thought itself. What was it Descartes said? “I think, therefore I am.” That credo can become with equal simplicity, “I think, therefore it is.” The poet William Carlos Williams put it most succinctly in saying, “A new world is only a new mind.” Our “world,” or “worlds,” are what we think they are, neither more nor less, and so we go about our daily businesses, determined in our purpose, convinced in our rightness. That’s what thought’s for—to make a world possible.

So if one finds oneself in a world with no memory of how one came to be there, wearing solely pajamas, then one continues as thought and one’s experience and the case provides. Left here, right there. Toothbrush for teeth and good health. What’s different then in Douglas Woolf ’s relation to these curious matters, how, in this case, does “John/Juan” serve him as a writer? How does this truncated but vivid character take place in the reader’s own world? I think suddenly of Nathaniel West’s “Miss Lonelyhearts” becoming entangled with his own sad respondents, of Stephen Crane’s young soldier in a thicket of trees, hearing the large cannon ball coming toward him, and of Malcolm Lowry’s drunkenly poignant “Consul,” collapsed in a corner of some garden, urinating, as he tries to explain his situation to the person who has discovered him. What matter discretion, call it, in any world where all is, even tossed out bottles and cans stuffed with shit and wadded Kleenex? The padding, swooping “runners,” who would collect all such, burying it for subsequent salvage, are heralds of present environmental concerns no doubt. But it is rather Douglas Woolf ’s construction of this curiously ambivalent cluster of survivors, of their apparent “queen,” of their intensive ordering of all significant details of human life, their equal abstractness, absence of relations among themselves, even “good” and “bad” a vague appellation they cannot themselves control except by doing what they are told to do.

It is John-Juan’s own particulars which most define the world then realized: the absence of a usual history caused by amnesia, the physical way he is persuaded or pulled to move in a kaleidoscopically changing company of others, the incessant distortion of any locating habit of language, his prized watch disappearing into the vagina of a teasing young woman just met, and his dress, one battered set of pajamas. What can he do? Go with the flow, as one says, and consider. No doubt this curious stage would make a useful ground for any imagination of satire writ as large as one might hope to manage. However, there seems to be no satire, no necessary condemnation, even of the malevolent border authorities who end the chaotic and surreal story by pounding him thoroughly, breaking his bones. It’s as though the author had taken the various bits and pieces of an all too real life and thought then of how they might conjoin in some place that only the mind could propose, some border—familiar enough from Douglas Woolf ’s passing in and out of Mexico—where a redefinition of who and what one thought one was is always in order, in fact, required. The echo of name sounds familiar—Robert or Bob, Bill or Willy. Is the person changed? Heavens no—or it would not be the case for said person, just for all else surrounding? “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. . . .” They would think of something to call it.

In Ya! the autobiographical grounding seems to come forward markedly. For example, the extraordinary sequences having to do with the protagonist Al’s meager job “at Portal 8″ in “the Coliseum” selling “Pipsi” (he first calls it “Pepsi”) must come from Douglas Woolf ’s own transient employment in like circumstances. There is a painfully meticulous tracking of money, most particularly of coins, all through the novel, endlessly reiterated budgeting, balancing of one coin’s expenditure against a small cache of others saved for “hockey” in some hazy future. The pacing, the calculations of what’s in hand, the purchases made so poignantly are, as one reads of them, heartbreaking.” ‘I’ll take one of those,’ Al said, whipping out twelve cents.” Yet it would be utterly beside any point apparent to say that that effect only is either this book’s intent—so to move the reader to some compassionate response—or the general disposition of the writer, to bring us into some box of apposite guilt and displacement. Paradoxically there is no advice to be found, which says, for instance, the reader should practice Al’s terrifying virtues, be humble, find pleasure in the absolute minims of survival, go on foot even through such drifts of mid-winter snow as have caused the highway to close and trucks and buses to stop moving. Our hero walks on, or rather contrives to slide as follows:

This was a lazy mode of travel, once one got the swing of it. Eyes closed, knees raised, slide downward on a wave, partway up to its next gentle undulation. Now crawl to the nearest treetop, hang there a moment. Shove off again, gliding each time a little farther. The proud sun stood at his back, to guide and not to blind him. The highway lay to his left, not far away. The undulating telephone wires were visible! He swung onward, paralleling. Ahead, treetops stood out against purest blue, beckoning him to the summit. If he could slide uphill this well, imagine sailing down the other side. Thus he did not much mind slithering on his belly the last steep half mile.

This beckoning world seems a veiled paradise of unexpected kind. I know I am not out there myself, hands chapped and raw, worn pants stiff with frozen snow, shoes, if any, caked blocks in which, somewhere, I presume are my still surviving feet. And my tenderly secured packages! Christmas, after all, is just around the corner and I am on my way to see my only beloved daughter. Who would not feel all possible?

Again the father “Al” approaches his destination with such a deliberation of means. Careful not to arouse curiosity, as one says, he contrives to complete both his shopping and the last miles to where his daughter lives with the aggressively successful relatives. This is to be Al’s shamed entrance into the world of all that he cannot manage or provide. But his angel, the daughter he has come to see, not only receives him with recognition and securing love but then chooses to escape the drear company with him. When they are at last free, as it were, he is hit by hunger, realizing he had not thought of food for them both. But she has brought unexpected sandwiches taken from the relatives’ hoard, so that their hunger is amply fed. “Not bad for your first night, 88! Maybe tomorrow would be better. You never lose hope. . . .” It is just about with these words that the novel ends—happily. That old hotel with its battered sign, reading at night YA because the LE had blacked out, was trying to tell us something after all. YA!

One never does quite lose hope—despite all the horrors and despairs surrounding. If I am persuaded that Douglas Woolf is neither a satirist nor an ironist primarily, it is because the worlds his various characters find themselves in are, each one, places which do not apply to any other world so simply. They are there where they are and he has found means to live in them because he believes, as I do, that they are not merely reflections of some anterior “real” world. If one were, for example, even for a minute asked to think of our present world as anything other than a malignant joke, a satire upon the very principles it claims as its authority, what would he or she manage to offer in response? Is it to be finally, as e. e. cummings wrote, “listen: there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go”? It is Douglas Woolf ’s immense and consistent acceptance of what he’s been given, his fascination with what can be made of it, so that the salt left in a small bag of peanuts has use, the peels of an apple, and this is just where his story begins, always. It is not Robinson Crusoe’s. The hero is not headed back at last to civilization and wealth. It is like Cervantes or rather his ageless friend, Don Quixote, who even when defeated still hears the echoes of his transforming dreams. I know there are good guys and bad guys in Douglas Woolf’s books, and he makes sure we know which is which. But his pleasure, and therefore mine, is in making the world, any world, a place still of one’s own.


Fade Out. Black Sparrow Press, $16.95.
Future Preconditional: A Collection. Out of Print.
HAD. Out of Print.
Hypocritic Days and Other Tales. Black Sparrow Press, $17.95.
Loving Ladies: To Maine and Back & Beyond. Out of Print.
On Us. Black Sparrow Press, $12.50.
Signs of a Migrant Worrier. Out of Print.
Spring of the Lamb. Out of Print.
The Timing Chain. Tombouctou Books, $7.00.
Wall to Wall. Dalkey Archive Press, $7.95.
Ya! & John-Juan. Dalkey Archive Press, $13.95.

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