July 7 2011: Rosebud by Gerard Malanga (The Penmaen Press, 1975)

I went to see Matthew Welton read at Southwell Poetry Festival earlier this evening, and his chosen approach – what he called a ‘cover versions’ set,  involving reading a few of his own poems alongside pieces that had inspired him by Wallace Stevens, R.F. Langley, Philip Larkin, W.H. Auden and Rebecca O’Connor, among others – was especially notable (for me, at least) for including something by Richard Brautigan.

Brautigan was an early inspiration of mine, mainly because his books – in the form of yellowing Picador paperbacks from the 70s: In Watermelon Sugar, The Hawkline Monster, Sombrero Fallout, The Abortion 1966 – were commonplace in charity shops and at jumble sales through most of the 1980s and 90s and, for ten or twenty pence a time, I managed to read my way through pretty much everything by him I could lay my hands on.

It was a long time before I heard him mentioned much by anyone else, though: bringing up his name would usually invite bafflement, or perhaps some vaguely patronising comment about ‘that hippy who wrote Trout Fishing in America’. He seemed to have fallen into that category of once-fashionable but subsequently neglected figures that covered many other things I read and admired early on, whether poetry by D.M.Black, John Matthias and Robert Duncan or novels like The Palm Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola and Les Guerilleres by Monique Wittig.

Brautigan’s name even now rarely appears in lists of the best post-war American novelists, where it surely deserves a secure place, but more recently I’ve noticed a surprising number of fellow Brautigan readers (who were presumably also picking up the books in the same unlikely places I was) emerging from the woodwork, suggesting that he’s been a far more influential writer than is generally assumed.

Set to thinking about early influences and the marks they leave, I was made to recall another largely forgotten poet, Gerard Malanga, someone whose name I knew in relation to Andy Warhol’s sixties paintings and films and through an association with The Velvet Underground: which is why I bought his 1971 collection Chic Death somewhere in Mid-Wales and read it to destruction during the 1980s. I’ve never found another copy so don’t know if my obsession with it then – as a somewhat acid-fried 15 year old – would seem comprehensible were I to re-read it now.

I did pick up the shorter (and from memory very different) collection pictured here a few years ago, though, and here, at least, are 24 oddly translucent, minimal lyrics that certainly bear re-reading, and make me curious as to whether the books I read at that much earlier phase of my own life would still appeal, or might be best left in the dimly-lit archive of memory. The first poem in the Rosebud sequence, A Death in Winter (for Gerald Hausman), reads in full:

there is a hill without grass
there is a dead butternut tree
near the green river
frozen with silence
a fragment of cloud crosses a new moon
without saying a word
the poem is obliterated

and the last, From A Lost Mountain (for W.S.Merwin), has the flavour of a haiku without quite being one, its lines set – like everything else in the book – in the fashionable lower-case of its particular moment:

when the lights go out in the valley below
i think of a tree a dark tree
that is losing its leaves

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