RAY BREMSER MEMORIAL
COLUMN SEVENTY-FOUR, AUGUST 1, 2002
(Copyright © 2002 Al Aronowitz)
VIII. HOW TO BE A POET'S WIFE
(Copyright " 1997 Brenda Frazer)
We got back just in time for Ray to report to the parole officer in Jersey. I felt a lot of pressure on me about this risk-taking, I felt guilty and didn't understand what parole was all about. Should I have known that our marriage itself would work against him, put him back in jail? My late afternoon depressions had returned. "Things worked out ok, just like I told you, see?" Ray wasn't worried but in reality we were very lucky not to have been caught for parole violation. What about the police in Kansas? He talked to me about jail, told me there was no such thing as rehabilitation for criminals in the brutal, archaic penal system. But he was the exception, it seemed. At seventeen he had been the oldest in the reformatory at Bordentown. He had gained the respect and trust of his mates and the correction officers, become librarian and created his own literary scene in the jail. He had a certain amount of freedom and was the only inmate that was allowed to wear the collar of his uniform shirt up in the back to look hip. He'd corresponded with Allen Ginsberg and Leroi Jones, and they were more than willing to introduce him to the literary scene in New York. He was a prototype of the beat poet, razed and crazed by the New Jersey penal system, he was at once both angry and gentle.
we couldn't lose sight of the workings of punishment. We had always to
remember that we were criminals and vagrants. "They get you once and
you're stuck for life, always guilty, never forgiven." But in actuality
Ray was a poet, with all the saintly stature of his beautiful work. Ray was no
longer a criminal, poetry had redeemed him.
was time to change our lifestyle, settle down. "Yes, we need to look for an
apartment, soon it will be winter. We'll get the money somehow." I
didn't even know where to start. "How do you find an apartment?" I
asked Irving. "Well it helps if you have some money and a job. It
shouldn't be so hard, after all you just went to California and back."
Irving reluctantly let us stay at his place for a few days, but Ray didn't
like his nagging about getting a job. I didn't really like the idea either.
Ray was a poet. It was bad enough that no one had published a book of his
poetry, but a nine to five job would be a come-down for
him. The New American Poetry Anthology was being put together and Ray had
two important poems in it. One of them about me called Blood, which I
loved but didn't quite understand completely. "Build temples where I
touch/Create a sodium monolith upon her gut..." It was about my period, I
know, and perhaps something to do with sexuality. I wasn't quite sure.
"Someone is sure to publish me now, this is an important time. Besides no
one is going to give me a job, they're afraid of ex cons. Unless of course I
go back to Jersey and work with my mother in the condom factory." Neither
of us wanted that. I was afraid of New Jersey, the history of the boy with
family problems. The little I knew
about the young man whose failed first romance had led him to crime. Besides,
Ray's literary ambitions were in New York City.
But at the same time I was expected somehow to make things right, get an apartment, make a home. It was a trick I didn't understand. Like magic. Real estate was a bit too real for us. What if
. . a
and a box
from the street. . .'
agent asked for references, leases, deposits, what about the apartment I?d
abandoned in DC. Ah, it was a cozy dream though, to be a villager, an artist
with all the necessities. Just barely enough would be fine.
found an apartment by accident, on East Thirteenth Street. It didn't have much
promise. It was very dirty and we didn't own a broom.
No goods, no clothes, only a
mattress and a box from the street. But
with the slightest uplift of spirit one could make a home anywhere. A kitchen
could become a cozy place just by turning on the stove burners. But this kitchen
was bleak. The stove was not hooked up. No fridge. Everyone else I knew was able
to deal with these situations, to make things homey. Everyone got good deals,
with painted apartments and nice cozy steam radiators. Probably because they had
jobs and security up front, probably with middle class families to support them
when in need.
were a different breed, afraid someone would ask for references and the old jail
past would get in the way, again. Start with a landlord like that? For the time
being we lived in the small room at the back of the railroad flat, moved our
mattress there and watched the stars out of the bare windows at night. Shelter,
privacy and rest were enough. And he'd tell me, "Nothing matters that
much, financial or material success are unimportant, because I'm not going to
live past thirty." I hoped it was just a romantic notion like the story he
liked to tell about Rimbaud, who stopped writing at the peak of his poetic
career. But maybe he knew something I didn't. His pessimism shook apart my
last semblance of comfort. What was worse,
he was going out more and leaving me alone. What was I supposed to do while he
was gone, clean the place up? Impossible! Have dinner ready? No money for food,
no stove, no pots and pans. I just waited, miserable.
And then he told me about
a reading in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Lehigh College. Allen had arranged it for
him. Why did they ask him, to
influence the students? I knew Ray
could do that. I knew he was well read, phenomenally well read. It was one
reason I was so much in awe of him. Otherwise we were on the same level. Because
didn't I now know the same people he knew? Didn't I count as my friend
Irving, whose edition of BIG TABLE magazine had just defied the censors
by publishing William Burroughs' NAKED LUNCH along with other great
unpublished literature? Didn't I talk high with Irving? Didn't I receive
kind tenderness from Allen, and go to parties at the home of other great poets.
Most of all, wasn't I the poet's wife? "Yeah, but you still have to
stay at home," he said, "There'll be some money too. Everything will
be better when I get back."
Irving knocked on the door the day after the reading. I was expecting Ray but I
was happy to see Irving because he never came out, never visited even though he
lived just four blocks away. "Ray's mother called Allen, Ray was arrested
don't remember having a dime or an address book or how I made the call to
Ray's mother. She said, "I saw him this morning at the county jail.
Don't come over, they only let me in because they know me. I told him all
along to stay in New Jersey." She didn't say she blamed me, but I could
hear it in her voice along with pain which she didn't have to describe. He had
been arrested for parole violation, for being out of state without permission,
for getting married without permission, for talking on the radio about
marijuana. He was going to be shipped out to the state prison in Trenton that
same day. Ray had told me that there would be an interview on the student radio
station after the reading in Lehigh and somehow the parole officer had gotten
wind of it. And that was the end of it.
didn't go out for days. I was alone as if the earth had sprouted giant ferns
again and dinosaurs roamed the streets of NY. And I was scared. It was November
and beginning to get cold. The heat didn't come on in the apartment. Sometimes
there was clanging as if the cold radiators were expanding. But my hope was
short lived; it must have been other tenants complaining by banging on the
pipes. The apartment was still my home, my only connection with Ray, if there
was any. But the rooms echoed with emptiness and even the windows facing south
onto the street were cold. The Puerto Rican children playing outside reminded me
I had no family. The failure in all things was a bring-down. Most of all the
numbness, the anger without any object since Ray was not there to answer for his
abandonment. Didn't he know that it wasn't safe to abandon me? Hadn't I
told him the story of my life? Oh
I left my own door ajar, maybe someone would come, friend or stranger. No one did. I began banging on people's doors to escape the isolation. Jimmy, a writer, finally let me in. There were
. .Letters started coming
from Ray with
heartbreaking regularity. . .'
all over his walls. Nothing was new or good or fancy in the least, but still
there was furniture, blankets and a
carpet. It even looked like he had lived there for years. He didn't know Ray,
only me, and he was touched by my sad story. I lay on the little cot half-asleep
and felt him kneeling hesitantly beside the bed to comfort me, as if against his
the glories of our love and marriage were now left behind. Letters started
coming from Ray with heartbreaking regularity. I couldn't read them. They got
lost quickly in the clutter I was unable to manage. I felt betrayed by him and
the whole world. But I had been changed by what Ray had taught me, even though
he abandoned me, even though I abandoned him. I was still part of the social
revolution, still called a beatnik on the street. Still had a philosophy and yet
was so weak with despair that I was barely surviving. Impossible to understand,
like dormancy in animals. I was a sleep-walking fool. Probably some blues or
country and western song has told my story somewhere. Pity me, for I couldn't
even utter the words of my pain. Who would keep me out of the bad mood that
doesn't go away, searching for blind answers with no satisfaction. Only he
could make me shift to a major key. Like gospel released the
sudden energy of soul. Ray Charles was reassuring "Well I know, if
it's in you, you're gonna sing, YES INDEED!" It was
all there, but it was because he told me, and now he's gone. Do you get
thought, and this is the greatest shame, that the rest of the poets out there,
our friends, would expect for me to be stronger. Somehow I knew that the world
would judge me for this weakness of spirit. And so did he! Wrote me letters
telling me how to get money for lawyers, habeas corpus writs. Hit somebody up
for it. Do what I'd seen him do but couldn't? Insist that others share
in my dream, our dream? More the
shame, I couldn't.
besides I had already heard Irving's and Allen's opinion. And they both
removed any hope I might have had. Irving said that jail was Ray's writing
place, a refuge from the real world he couldn't deal with. He compared him to
Jean Genet who did his best writing in prison. "Just look at it, he did
exactly the things that would put him back there." Allen simply said,
"Maybe it's the best place for him. I can't believe that he talked
about smoking marijuana over the radio. That was categorically uncool."
Allen was probably mad, too, because he'd worked so hard to get Ray out on
parole from Bordentown, vouching for his importance as a literary figure. I knew
they were both wrong. Ray had made a mistake in judgment. His method of dealing
with New Jersey and the parole situation was a combination of outwitting the
parole officer who liked him, and defiance of an unworkable system. Ray wasn't
in love with jail, he was in love with me.
none of these opinions suited me at that moment. In fact, his friend's lack of
compassion for Ray was only exceeded by their ignorance of my need, physical and
emotional. And I wasn't sympathetic toward Ray myself. My sense of not fitting
into his life was extreme. Not only was poetry more important, but now New
Jersey had a greater claim on him than I did. I blamed him because he'd left
me behind that night. The only possible reason was that I cramped his style. It
didn't matter if it was his image as a poet or a romantic figure with the
women, the principle was the same, he was better off without me.
here was the phoenix flight Ray had talked about. Six months high on poetry,
love and marijuana and now sentenced to six months in prison. What would I do?
Ray really meant it when he tried to loosen me up sexually, he could be
satisfied. Look at my confusion when he expected me to go out and get laid with
others, his friends. Something more was needed, a little anger, a little more
confusion. I needed the total absence of my loved one, the despair of loss, the
curse of disbelief. So now, Ray, the time is right. Now talk to me of balling,
talk to me of the levels of need that cross over from heat and food to ultimate
connectedness. Now's the time for a nowhere scene. I'll get it right this
now I'm told I'm wrong. Again?
What's all of this criticism in his letters. Suddenly I am supposed to
be faithful? But that's what I was before, and it wasn't good then. Why now?
And I suddenly see that I have the power to say the words that I feared from his
friends, when they met my need with "I told you so". So that's what
I did, not answering Ray at all, only blaming him with my silence.
Nothing mattered anyway, whatever time of day it was, wherever I was. There was no cure for this malady of mine. In fact everything, everywhere could have been my childhood again, when my mother left and I didn't understand. I didn't understand this abandonment either, no, not even a little. And just when I was sure that it was ok to have faith in something. But it was no time for analyzing. The extremes of cold and hunger, were not just a fantasy of my troubled mind. What did it mean? If someone left me, if Ray left me, did that mean that I couldn't take care of myself at all? If my mother left me must that mean that I had to do without the comforts of childhood? Yes that's what it meant,
. . I stayed away
from the poets,
afraid of my loss of faith. . .'
at least as far as I
knew. If I could have achieved some comfort, some sleep, a few moments alone to
figure things out, maybe even to cry, perhaps I would have come to my senses.
Does that mean then that I didn't survive? No. Rather I discovered the power
of oblivion, of sex for warmth, of hanging out for warmth. Survival with no
rationale. Survival and destruction made a fine twosome. Everywhere people were
partnered and I was alone in the big city. But ok, wasn't there a price to
being a poet's wife. Was this it?
fact there were plenty of people who were willing to have me tag along, to have
me sleep in their bed for warmth. Me and my big jeans and Ray's fatigue coat.
So what! I'd left everything behind before, now I would leave off worrying
about my self-respect, leave off worrying about this unpredictable love which
brought me no comfort. I stayed away from the poets, afraid of my loss of faith.
I didn't want to hear them say, "predictable".
think it was Jimmy that took me to meet the musicians on 12th street in a
basement apartment. Maybe he wanted to be rid of me, maybe afraid of falling in
I held myself aloof, loving real jazz, Trane, Monk and Mingus while these guys
were still back in the forties somewhere with their music books and
arrangements. I never really liked big bands, you know, unless it was Artie
Ray was waging a campaign
of letters during this time. They were very regular, and not well received, in
fact I didn't read them. The writing was very small and pleading with me to
get myself together. I think he must have written as often as the jail
regulations permitted, and they came in like clockwork. He had once told me that
small writing was a sign of recidivism, the repeat offender, the habitual
criminal bound to be locked up over and over. It had something to do with going
back to the womb, the psychiatrists said.
wrote to my mother too. And then she wrote to me. Nothing I'd done so far had
shamed her. But this did, my lack of compassion for Ray. She was on his side! I
just wanted to be left alone. I just wanted to wipe out the whole connection,
all the memories and drift off to sleep. Sometimes I stayed at the apartment,
sitting over a one-burner hot plate someone had lent me, trying to keep warm.
There was a delicatessen around the corner on Avenue B, always crowded at lunch.
When I had a dollar, I'd go and get a tuna fish sandwich, high and thick, and
a Pepsi cola. Soon it's all I wanted to eat. Other food made me nauseous.
It was late December and
Ray was no longer in quarantine. It
had been just over a month since the arrest.
I went to visit him around Christmas in
Trenton state prison. The hassles of getting in embarrassed me and then the
visit was nothing but a telephone with glass in between us . When I saw him in a
gray shirt with his hair all shaved off I was really in shock. His face was full
of pain and sadness, he looked tired. "Don't let them kid you about the
quarantine bit. I've been in solitary for weeks on end. I thought I was going
nuts and except for writing to you I think I would have. Thinking about you out
there and not knowing anything, it's more than I can bear."
was there too and walked through the hallway behind the visiting cubicles. Ray
introduced us through the glass. He'd graduated from the reformatory into
prison. "I'm sending you a manuscript. Don't lose it! OK?"
sky was a bloody red under gloomy blue clouds as if preparing for snow. The bus
in the prison parking lot was waiting to go. He told me I'd be able to come
back again in a month. But I didn't want to return.
I was still seeing Irving. I would occasionally go to his apartment. Once one of his lovers was there, a painter, and we were smoking grass. We were both shy which made the come-on more electric. I reach out a finger, touch, hand around his neck, seduction. I loved the passion in his artist's face, impressionable and lonely. Irving was once my lover, too, at least we desired it that way. For a long time I had thought perhaps I had a boyish appeal for him. One day I went and he had rearranged his bedroom, no more mattress on the floor. Now he had a bedspring and it was propped up on grapefruit juice cans. Very tidy. And somehow, sitting there on that bed with him, making it with him seemed really natural. We were faces coming at each other. The desperation heavy in the winter air of New York, it was waiting for me outside. A few moments of escape. But the whole bed arrangement collapsed under our weight and interrupted our privacy. Then I got worried about his sexual space, wanted to deny his homosexuality and confirm our love. A failure all the way around. I was there to cling to someone, because everything was too scary, it didn't really matter who, and yet I did love Irving. ##
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