Lisa Jarnot
Robert Duncan: The Ambassador From Venus

One: The Opening of the Field

O Lasting Sentence,
sentence after sentence I make in your image. In the feet that
measure the dance of my pages I hear cosmic intoxications of the
man I will be.
    — “The Structure of Rime I”

A significant development came during Duncan’s European travels in the form of a poem that was to serve as the entranceway to his first major book The Opening of the Field. In January of 1956 while in England, he wrote a piece called “Having Been Enraged By John Davenport”, later titled “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow.” The reference to Davenport occurred in relation to, as Duncan reported to Denise Levertov, “a fierce scene I had with John Davenport at the end of an evening at G.S. Fraser’s over Pound.”i Davenport, a British literary critic and a friend of Dylan Thomas’s, was the victim of a Duncanian lambasting in the later deleted lines of the poem:
The besotted man as if he were dead
Strove against each one reading
Life! Life! You do not bring me life
Rubbish! Bosh! Miserable stuff.
Stumbled the length of dim hall
To blow out—No! No! No! Each
Poor candle…ii
The Opening of the Field arrived as a breakthrough for Duncan. It was the first book he conceived of as a project with interlocking themes, and the first book in which the poems that followed “Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” went substantially unrevised. He included fragments of the new meadow poem in three letters written in February of that year, the first to Helen Adam, the second to James Broughton, and the third to Denise Levertov. Duncan wrote in the letter to Broughton (while on his way to visit London’s Natural History Museum), “So I shall have still another book before I go down to join the Sloth, Cave Bear and Dodo to leave whatever haunts of extinction among the fruitful surviving species.iii The poem that first appeared in letters to friends was published without emendation in Michael McClure and James Harmon’s Ark II/Moby I:
Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
that is not mine, but is a made place
—as if the mind made it up—a poem.

Often I am permitted to return to a hall
that is a made place, created by light
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.

Wherefrom fall all architectures I am
I say are likenesses of the First Beloved
Whose flowers are flames lit to the Lady.

Often I am permitted to return to a poem
where I too stirrd may burn however poor
and turn my face to her shadowless door.iv

Evolving out of a confluence of his reading of the Zohar and his meditations on the process of writing, in its later revised form it became one of Duncan’s most widely known poems.

The trip to England also brought fulfilling social encounters. Duncan and Jess visited with painter Kit Barker and his wife Ilse who were then living in West Sussex,v and during a month of sightseeing in and around London they met a young Scottish poet and medical doctor named Gael Turnbull. As had been the case in Paris, the other point of business was the world of art, and Duncan reported home to the Tylers in Healdsburg:
Our romance with Europa is drawing to a close. Bank account abruptly going-gone down the drain of Paris and London; we must hurry back to Spain, get our trunk off, and ourselves off by March….If we will never see Matisse at Vence, or Picasso at Antilles, or magnificent Italy—… we have gorged ourselves on museums of Paris and London, we saw the Prince Regent’s palace at
Leaving London on February 10, the couple again stopped briefly in Paris en route to Mallorca, staying with a friend of James Broughton’s, painter Dan “Zev” Harris, in the 14th arrondissement.vii Once back in Banalbufar, they went about the tasks of packing, and in late February, Duncan wrote to Ida Hodes complaining of the winter weather that had descended upon Europe. There was snow in the hills of the island and Duncan and Jess fought off the cold by spending their last weeks in their Banalbufar flat huddled in bed reading to each other. The impending return to the United States at least came with the promise of employment. Ruth Witt-Diamant had written to Duncan, inviting him to work at the Poetry Center in San Francisco during the fall of 1956. Having spent the year with meager economic resources, Duncan was quick to accept the job. Meanwhile, at Charles Olson’s request, he also agreed to teach at Black Mountain College during its final semesters, the spring and summer of 1956. The details of the employment were recorded in a letter to Ham and Mary Tyler:
Olson offers a house for Jess and me, a food allowance and $115 month. Which means Jess can stay on until someone in S[an] F[rancisco] finds an apartment for us and then go west and take it, whenever it is….Black Mountain will be going to the very center of our activities. Black Mountain Review #6 is loaded with selections from notebooks, an article on Olson’s poetics, and a long poem by me; and with collages and selections from Morgenstern translations by Jess.vii
Printed in Spain, the sixth issue of the Black Mountain Review also included poems by Louis Zukofsky, Lorine Niedecker, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, and Denise Levertov, forming in print a constellation of Objectivist and Black Mountain poets.

The couple flew to Portugal on March 7, and ten days later Duncan left Lisbon on a flight to Boston via Bermuda. He parted with Jess at the city’s Francfort Hotel, leaving his partner behind to attend to the business of shipping a large number of new paintings home to San Francisco. The couple had never spent more than a weekend apart during their first six years of marriage, and from opposite shores of the Atlantic their written correspondence began.ix The missives spanned the next thirty years, becoming their primary form of communication while Duncan was away on reading tours. It was, for both men, an important extension of their lives together, and the letters regularly included re-avowals of their love for each other. The correspondence also more clearly explained the dynamics of their relationship, with Jess assuming the role of householder, caretaker, and nurse, while Duncan went about more traditional head-of-household work, flying from city to city on business, bringing home paychecks, and occasionally having affairs while on the road.x During this first instance of separation, Duncan reflected to Jess:
It seems strange indeed to be so far from you—not the space so much as the fact that it will be eighteen days. And I am haunted by your having only to wait—tho I hope the library and the zoo with sketchpad may furnish diversion. Bring me back some flamingos and I would like a rhinoceros and some baboons.xi
In the interim, Duncan created diversions for himself, renewing his relationship with his Berkeley peers Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser, who greeted him in Boston. Blaser, then employed at Harvard’s Widener Library, had also procured work for Spicer at the Boston Public Library that winter. Spicer, after spending the summer and fall of 1955 in New York City, found the stay in the East to be a trying one. But for Duncan, the first days back on home soil in the company of his itinerant Round Table companions was a welcome re-convening, complete with “a session of ciggrette [sic] smoking and talking like an overwound up fast-motion tik-tok!”xii Duncan wasted little time exploring Boston, and despite a storm that had shut down the city’s subway system, he made his way through knee-deep snow to visit Harvard University’s phonograph archive on March 20th, where he listened to recordings by Ezra Pound, Yeats, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Vachel Lindsay, and Jean Cocteau.

From there he was off to Black Mountain, on the evening of March 22 departing by plane for Washington, D.C., and then taking a bus to the warmer, wetter climes of Asheville, North Carolina. From Asheville he hitchhiked the short distance to the grounds of the college, hidden in the Black and Craggy Mountain foothills. In the wake of his history with the school, the return to the college that spring was an emotional victory. Olson had invited him partly to take Robert Creeley’s place as a teacher, partly to boost the morale of the students, and partly to assume responsibility for remaining administrative duties related to the institution. He arrived on March 23 and stayed on until the fall when most of the faculty and students disbanded. Painter Paul Alexander remembered the almost comic state of disrepair of various campus facilities during the school’s final days, including a library building “buried in briars, briar roses, blackberries, and weeds” where “the door was permanently ajar” and “[t]here was no librarian.”xiii Duncan’s correspondence from the period relayed another sense of the college: that its low-enrollment end-days afforded solitude. He told Jess that the living quarters were hospitable enough—a well-lit painting studio with a bedroom attached—large and bright, from where he prepared to teach and waited for Jess’s arrival from Europe.xiv On a tour of the campus, Duncan also found that Robert Creeley had left a record player, which he quickly claimed for himself.

At the end of March, Duncan planned a trip to Philadelphia and New York to meet former Black Mountain student Michael Rumaker for the first time and to meet Jess upon his arrival by boat into Manhattan. Because some of the other senior faculty members were away for the Easter holiday, Olson asked Duncan to stay at the college for the opening of the spring semester classes.xv Celebrating the weekend drinking martinis with a student painter named Tom Field, Duncan also met two other recruits, Paul Alexander and Jerry van de Wiele.xvi Field and Alexander, Indianans who had been friends since high school, later moved to San Francisco to continue their work as artists and to continue their associations with Duncan and Jess. Alexander remembered that Duncan’s energy at Black Mountain was phenomenal. The few students on campus that semester found themselves alone an Easter weekend with the new teacher who ran at full speed without any evident fatigue. Even in the transition from a long flight across the Atlantic to a Boston winter storm to the mossy landscape of North Carolina,
He was amazing, and he never stopped talking the entire time. He arrived and initiated this incredible monologue which went on and on. Since there was no official school thing happening, it was more or less the three of us and him.xvii
Throughout the five months that Duncan spent at the college, he extended his energies in several directions, writing a number of new poems, exploring his potential as a teacher and lecturer, and engaging himself in collaborative playwriting and theater directing.

When Jess arrived from Europe in early April, he was met in New York by a Black Mountain student named Dan Rice who helped him disembark and accompanied him south. Duncan had made plans for Jess to seek work as a chemist at one of the two veterans hospitals not far from the college grounds, but the work never materialized, and Jess was soon to return to San Francisco. His brief stay at the school was memorable for the painting students, and Paul Alexander recalled that Duncan and Jess’s living quarters were a special place for the younger artists to visit:
Jess unrolled his paintings and put them up, and then we had another wonderful center for the school….Jess and Robert introduced us to San Francisco writers. I had never heard of Jack Spicer, and we read a play he wrote about the Trojan War….They added a totally new element to Black Mountain, because it had been all New York-oriented, and they brought San Francisco to Black Mountain, that whole sensibility, including a much more personal involvement with myth.xviii
The couple also provided the students at the school with an example of an openly homosexual partnership. For Tom Field, Duncan and Jess’s presence on the campus was an important one:
I had only been to bed with one guy, and I didn’t know much about it, and it was a big hang up. I was sort of observing these two people and their lifestyle, because one knew they were gay and a married couple. My sexual experience had been jacking off with a guy once in high school, and I thought that was all there was.xix
With students coming and going from their quarters, Jess settled into a painting routine and Duncan turned his focus toward his teaching responsibilities. He had prepared a lecture called “An Introductory Proposition”, opening the spring semester with a flood of chatter that invoked Dante, Rilke, Cassirer, Pound, and the Zohar. In a notebook entry dated April 4, 1956, he pointed toward the theme around which he wished to organize his teachings:
Dante in De Vulgare Eloquentia writes: “what we call the vernacular speech is that which children are accustomed by those who are about them when they first begin to distinguish words…” In search of the makings of poetry we are going to turn back to the very seeds of language, back to that first beginning to distinguish words which is a beginning of newly distinguishing the world.xx
He also told Black Mountain scholar Mary Emma Harris that his course offerings included
basic techniques in poetry, which was working out things. And I gave a lecture course in the ideas and the meaning of form. And in the summer, this course in Illuminations and a continuation of the basic [techniques]…More courses in the summer, really, because, well, we just got more wrapped up.xxi
Duncan wrote to Denise Levertov that the Illuminations course, fully titled “Reading in French: Rimbaud, Les Illuminations,” might more aptly be called “How to make one’s way as an amateur in the French language.”xxii During that summer he also had the opportunity to co-teach a theatre workshop with Wes Huss, an activity that led to further playwriting plans between the two when Huss and his family moved to Stinson Beach in the fall of 1956.

The courses on basic techniques and Duncan’s lecture class “Ideas of the Meaning of Form” laid the foundation for the teaching he did throughout his career. Years later those pedagogical preoccupations emerged as the groundwork for a core class in the MFA program at New College of California called “Basic Elements.” The course “Ideas of the Meaning of Form” also came into the New College curriculum during the 1980s and eventually became the title of an essay included in Duncan’s Fictive Certainties. Of the Black Mountain “basic techniques” course, Duncan said:
We met every morning in a seminar room with a table and people would sit around and I’d plug in the coffee and we’d have coffee all morning long. It might have met as early as 8 o’clock. I’d run around to get people and have to wake them up because they weren’t used to having a morning class….We dealt first with vowel sounds and took quite a long time with that. Then consonant clusters, and then we did syllables…. Perhaps thinking of the work Albers had done earlier at Black Mountain, my idea was to work with the materials of poetry, when a technique applies, and everything else would be their own account.xxiii
Joseph Albers’ ideas about painting indeed found their way into Duncan’s language work with the students. Duncan’s own non-traditional education sharply corresponded to the ethos of the Black Mountain community and the Bauhaus School before it, and he told interviewer Mary Harris in 1971:
…thinking about my class before I went to Black Mountain to do it on basic techniques, I just had what would be anybody’s idea of what Albers must have been doing. You knew that they had color theory, and that they did a workshop sort of approach, and that they didn’t aim at a finished painting….I thought, “Well, that’s absolutely right,”….I think we had five weeks of just vowels…and…syllables….numbers enter into poetry as they do in all time things, measurements. But then that enters into Albers….It’s not only the color, but it’s the interrelationships of space and numbers.xxvi
The “Ideas of the Meaning of Form” seminar centered not so much on the particulars of language as on the larger form that a poem might take. Duncan asked the five studentsxxv in the class to look at the formal structures of various texts, beginning with the Old Testament Book of Genesis. Out of the classroom conversations he wove together early poems of his “Structure of Rime” series with their attention to ideas of “law” or form. “The Dance” and “The Law I Love Is Major Mover”xxvi were also penned at Black Mountain, incorporating directives for an audience of a few devoted apprentice writers:
Responsibility is to keep
              the ability to respond.
The myriad of spiders’ eyes that Rexroth saw
              reflecting light
are glamorless, are testimony
              clear and true.

The shaman sends himself
the universe is filld with eyes then, intensities,
              with intent,
              outflowings of good or evil,
              benemaledictions of the dead,


the witness brings self up before the Law.xxvii
The influence of master-educator Ernst Kantorowicz had been clearly imprinted into Duncan’s own style as a teacher, and he told students at the beginning of the semester:
…in the morning meetings, as announced, we will study tekniks [techniques]. From time to time, I will read short lectures either as introductions to the work at hand, as hypotheses arising from the work we have done, or as summaries of what we have done….We will be detectives not judges….Week by week we will study the following: vowels, consonants, the structure of rime,— these are the elements of tone in writing both what we call poetry and what we call prose. Then three weeks on elements of movement, what is often calld “metrics.” The syllable, the word, the phrase, the line, the paragraph, and the sentence. The seventh week you will each of you read and analyse [sic] for the group a passage of prose and one of poetry of your own choosing; and a poem and a prose piece which you have written….In the evenings I will read a series of lectures as general as the morning studies will be particular; but I want these too to be bull-sessions, talk by all of us on the concerns of the writer or the painter, or the musician, or the actor: and above all our own concern with this thing calld FORM.xxviii
Throughout the spring of 1956, Duncan and Charles Olson ran their classes as oddly opposing forces, with Olson handling sprawling late night lectures alongside Duncan’s early morning seminars, guaranteeing that the students were sleep-deprived and over-stimulated. Duncan also gave early evening lectures, and as his notebooks showed, he talked a good deal about subjects within his expertise, Imagism and Modernism.xxix The college’s emphasis on theatre gave Duncan an opportunity to continue work on his play Faust Foutu, alongside composer Stefan Wolpe who wrote musical settings for it. The play was performed at the college, as were Duncan’s Medea at Kolchis and a farce called “The Origins of Old Son”, lampooning Charles Olson with a cast of students including Jerry van de Wiele and Eloise Mixon. Duncan recalled that the resources were limited, but the collaborative creative activity was entirely unique:
I could get a cast of six—more than six, since some would double in a performance…and there were just barely more people in the audience than there would be in the play. Out of it came the idea of having a play with everybody in it in the play, no audience at

Two: New York Interlude

Uncertain as to the status of Black Mountain’s summer session, Duncan made a brief trip to New York in early May to search for work as a freelance typist. Arriving back on campus to wait for a head count of returning students, he recorded in a notebook the small measure of domesticity he had achieved in North Carolina: “The black kitten, Mr. Rimbaud, sleeps under the spray of azalea. Lotta Lenya sings “Surabaya Johnny” with seductive persistence. White surfaces of an enameled pot and a willow-patterned sugar bowl are cool in the May heat.”xxxi Meanwhile Jess returned to San Francisco, first staying with Joanna and Michael McClure at 707 Scott Street, and later finding an apartment for himself and Duncan on Portrero Hill’s DeHaro Street.xxxii Throughout the summer, Duncan longed for Jess’s presence, writing to him of his teaching projects, and sharing his thoughts about their relationship:
I’ve got a good deal of my poor soul all mixed up with yours and it makes me absent-hearted like absent-minded. Well, I find it delicious tho thinking about you like it used to be thinking about you before we finally started living together. And here we are “living together”—there it is.xxxiii
Diverting himself from the pangs of separation, Duncan took advantage of his proximity to the East Coast. On Friday June 15, he caught a ride with Charles Olson from the grounds of the school to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he boarded a bus for Philadelphia. There, he met with novelist Michael Rumaker, a 1955 graduate of Black Mountain whose thesis project had been supervised by Duncan. Rumaker in his memoir Robert Duncan in San Francisco recorded his initial face-to-face encounter with the elder poet:
The first thing of course, were his eyes, those curious and lovely eyes that looked at me, directly, while in the same instant, with hesitancy and vulnerability, looked around me and off to the sides…. Voluptuously plumpish, with a coxcomb of dark hair, he stepped into the room. Shy with each other at first, he began to talk, nonstop, generating energy for a dozen people, radiant with intelligence and enthusiasm. In a word, overwhelming, like a force of nature.xxxiv
After a morning spent entertaining Rumaker, Duncan journeyed to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to revisit his favorite works by Miro, Braque, and Picasso.xxxv A good part of his focus that summer was in fact centered around the art world. Departing from Philadelphia for a two-week stay in New York, he set up house at Virginia Admiral’s loft on 14th Street, and socialized with painter Lilly Fenichel, a colleague of Jess’s at the California School of Fine Arts, as well as two New York painters, Grace Hartigan and Larry Rivers. Between those meetings there was another important engagement, a visit to his old haunt, the Museum of Modern Art.xxxvi

On the 22nd of June, during a casual afternoon spent with Louis and Celia Zukofsky in Brooklyn, Duncan penned a long letter to Jess complaining about financial pressures and registering a growing irritation with New York. It was a hot, humid summer, and the city still reminded him of the sad business of the divorce and tattered friendships that he had escaped from in the mid-1940s. He also found himself desirous of every luxury that New York had to offer:
There was a delicious red and blue striped…cotton blazer what that I ogled this morning. And white cord hiking length shorts. And uptown beautiful silk and cotton shirts with a metallic sheen—and black silk suits. Yum yum. And what an array of red, vermilion, orange, pink, yellow, ochre, olive drab etc. etc. finery…xxxvii
Invited to the Stony Point Colony on the weekend of June 23 and 24, Duncan had an opportunity to see an alternative community established in response to Black Mountain College’s disintegration. North of Manhattan in Rockland County, regular visitors and inhabitants of the cooperative housing project included potter and painter Mary Caroline (M.C.) Richards, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Paul Williams, Karen Karnes and David Tudor. Duncan told James Broughton that while he felt ambivalent about New York, there was something redemptive about its more bohemian residents:
it was pleasant because of a variety of people all of whom arranged occasions—an evening with Lilly Fenichel, movies and dinners with Nik Cernovich (who printed The Borderguard) and a week-end at Stony Point with M.C. Richards and some time with John Cage whom I like very much—he inspires what shreds of art I have left for such climates.xxxviii
Returning from Stony Point on a Sunday evening, Duncan dined with Lilly Fenichel at her apartment on West 13th Street.xxxix The following night he had dinner with Virginia Admiral, and later that evening he met Donald Allen for the first time. In a letter to Jess, Duncan described his new acquaintance only as “a friend of Robin’s,”xl" though Allen, as an editor with Grove Press, was soon to establish the careers of many of the writers of Duncan’s generation, particularly with the publication of the 1960 anthology The New American Poetry.

At the end of June, with income from his New York typing jobs in his pocket, Duncan made a short visit to Boston to see Robin Blaser and Jack Spicer. It was a difficult summer for the Boston refugees, primarily because of Spicer’s resistance to the new environment. Blaser, then living with James Felts but hosting Spicer as well, reported to Duncan: “Jack isn’t at all well here. The total absence of his admiring juniors leaves him pink and shell-like.”xli Duncan’s own remark, in a letter to Jess, made clear his increasing reservations regarding Spicer and his potential future intrusions into the San Francisco household: “Robin here plays nurse-maid and companion and Jack usurps all and more of the time given…It will be important to keep Jack in his place. The role he takes over in Robin’s life makes that only too clear.”xlii Spicer’s deepening alcoholism, along with a certain feeling of rivalry toward Duncan, were factors that contributed to the close of their friendship in the early 1960s. The deterioration that had begun soon after Duncan met Jess continued through the 1950s, and into the early 1960s when Duncan and Spicer stopped speaking to each other entirely. Robin Blaser attempted to maintain a relationship with both of his old friends, occasionally acting as a mediator between the two, and enduring Spicer’s demands on his time. Blaser said of Spicer in a 1992 interview with Kevin Killian:
…he could be terribly mean, in Boston, where he stayed, and it was essentially one room. And everything had to be put away. This gorgeous couch. It was palatial, it really was….Anyway, Jack was staying there, and…he dumped red wine purposely on this gray silk couch, it was unbelievable….He did that and then he would leave his dirty socks under the couch.xliii
At the beginning of July, Duncan began whittling away at a new piece of writing called “A Poem Beginning Slow”. In it he reflected upon his relationship with Spicer and Blaser, as well as upon his relationship with Jess, which had rescued him from the dramas of his Berkeley years:
tho the lamps strung among
     shadowy foliage are there;
tho all earlier ravishings,
happened, and sing melodies, moving thus
     when I touch them;

such sad lines they may have been
that now thou hast lifted to gladness.xliv

While New York’s heat and Spicer’s moods lessened Duncan’s enthusiasm for his summer travels, he nonetheless enjoyed spending time with Blaser and Jim Felts. After the Independence Day holiday with the couple, he returned to New York briefly and then crossed the Hudson to meet another Black Mountain School graduate and poet named Joel Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer and his wife were then living in Westfield, New Jersey and as Duncan told Jess, “Joel and Sis Oppenheimer I like very much: so it was a pleasant last afternoon, sitting under shade trees with beers and chatting about books and people and telling jokes.”xlv

Duncan returned to Black Mountain for a summer session that had been organized after much uncertainty. There were ten students left at the college, including one new face, a New England poet named John Wieners. Born in 1934, Wieners attended Boston College as an undergraduate and later met Charles Olson, beginning studies with him at Black Mountain during the spring of 1955. Duncan had first heard news of Wieners from Robin Blaser who reported: “When I first saw his apartment he had “Song of the Borderguard” nailed to the wall and lines of Pound written on the paint with frames over each.”xlvi From the beginning of their friendship, there was little doubt in Duncan’s mind as to Wieners’ importance as one of the younger writers of the Black Mountain circle. Though he kept some personal distance from Wieners who battled drug dependence and mental illness throughout his adult life, Duncan became an influential champion of the younger poet’s work.

The nearly abandoned campus was not at all lifeless that summer. Throughout the month of July, the residents of Black Mountain made the most of their time together. On July 13, editor Jonathan Williams visited the school with his newly printed edition of Olson’s Maximus II. A reading and party were organized, leaving students and faculty alike with Bastille Day champagne hangovers. In San Francisco, Jess was looking for a job, while Duncan found himself overworked. Teaching five days a week, he reported home that he was never quite sure where his courses would lead next:
…the new course on “content”, since I am making it up as we go along, is like a double-course for me. We started out by making up nonsense sentences; and then after selecting one particularly obscure one from each in the class writing “explanations” of what they mean.xlvii
It was also clear as the summer wore on that the distance from his household in San Francisco and the frenetic energy of Black Mountain were beginning to place some strain on Duncan. In a letter penned to Jess in early August, he wrote:
Walking home just now down the hill from Jerry’s [van de Wiele] where Grey [Stone] and Eloise and Don [Mixon] had gatherd too for a deep-dish blackberry pie, I was most entirely thinking of you with me, most entirely wishing on the full moon magic. After a day and yesterday too of depression, I suppose—of the crawling into bed and reading mood that when you are not actually here is a lonely looney retreat.xlviii
As had long been the reputation of the college in the woods, poverty and drama were also forces to contend with. By mid-August Duncan was finding it difficult to stretch his salary to pay for food, and his apartment had become infested with fleas. Finding some solace in evenings spent with two new friends, Don and Eloise Mixon, Duncan began composing parts of a play called Medea at Kolchis. By mid-August, the second act of the piece was written in anticipation of a performance on the grounds of the campus. Duncan was very pleased with the cast he’d scraped together, telling Jess:
Wes [Huss] is playing Mrs. Garrow; Don [Mixon], Jason. A new student Eric [Weinberger] is playing the Doctor (who is Jason’s guardian—and “soul” in some sense)—Eloise [Mixon] has a wonderful part for her as Edna Medea’s aunt, all celtic twilight and romantic talk. The old man I am playing myself—wheezing and grunting, sighing and rattling on.xlix
The August 28th and 29th performances of Medea at Kolchis were the college’s final events, though Duncan, Wes Huss, and the students made plans to regroup in San Francisco and to form a theatre company there.l As Black Mountain closed its doors, its writers and artists made their way in two directions, toward New York and San Francisco. A number of the young painters and writers who came to form a community around “The San Francisco Renaissance” had first been educated at Black Mountain. During the late summer of 1956 Duncan too looked forward to returning home, first making a visit to Denise Levertov and Mitch Goodman in Manhattan. He left New York on Friday morning, August 31, arriving in San Francisco that evening to be reunited with Jess in a new apartment on DeHaro Street after nearly three months of separation.

i to Denise Levertov, 3 Feb 1956.

ii Notebook 13, ND [Jan 1956], SUNYAB.

iii to James Broughton, 5 Feb 1956.

iv Ark II/Moby I. 1956-1957, Ed. Michael McClure and James Harmon. San Francisco, 10.

v Duncan and Jess had met the Barkers in San Francisco in 1955. Kit Barker was the brother of poet George Barker.

vi Duncan and Jess to Ham and Mary Tyler, 8 Feb 1956. In an interview Duncan gave in 1976 he said that money he had expected from his mother was sent to Algiers and that at the time French president Charles DeGaulle had frozen monetary imports from Africa.

vii Harris, originally part of the San Francisco painting circle during the 1940s, had moved to Europe in 1953.

viii to Ham and Mary Tyler, 26 Feb 1956. The poem of Duncan’s was “An Owl is an Only Bird of Poetry (Another Vale for James Broughton)”.

ix to Michael Rumaker, 30 March 1956. STORRS.

x During the early part of their relationship, Duncan’s income for readings and lectures made up the greater part of the couple’s income. By the mid-1970s, Jess’s advances from the Odyssia Gallery equaled Duncan’s income.

xi to Jess, 19 March 1956.

xii to Jess, ibid, Tik-tok is a reference to a character in the Oz books.

xiii Christopher Wagstaff with Harry Jacobus. “Interview with Paul Alexander.” Painters of the San Francisco Renaissance, No. 3. May 15 and 20, June 10, 1986: 8.

xiv to Jess, 23 March 1956.

xv Duncan later recalled that the stripped down faculty included “Wes Huss and his wife, Huss taught drama. And Charles and Betty [Olson]. [Joseph] Fiore taught painting. And [Stefan] Volpe [sic]— he taught music— and Hilda Volpe [sic]….Huss’s drama group was going strong. It was the core of the college.” [Charles Olson, The Special View of History, Ed. Ann Charters, Berkeley: Oyez, 1970: 8.

xvi Duncan had an affair with Tom Field in San Francisco in 1956. It’s unclear whether or not he began the relationship at Black Mountain, though Martin Duberman in his history Black Mountain conjectured that “…sometimes when Jess was away—and sometimes when he wasn’t— Duncan would go on binges that challenged Black Mountain’s usual definition of machismo.” [Martin Duberman, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community, Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1973, 431.]

xvii Christopher Wagstaff with Harry Jacobus. “Interview with Paul Alexander.” Painters of the San Francisco Renaissance, No. 3. May 15 and 20, June 10, 1986: 6.

xviii Ibid., 6. Spicer’s play was called Troilus, written in 1955.

xix Christopher Wagstaff. “Interview with Tom Field.” Painters of the San Francisco Renaissance, No. 2. March 18 and 25, 1986: 3.

xx Notebook 19, April 1956, SUNYAB.

xxi Mary Emma Harris. Robert Duncan Interview. 27 Dec 1971. Black Mountain College Archives. Martin Duberman in Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community reported that Duncan taught a class on Persian history at Black Mountain. This is not accurate.

xxii to Denise Levertov, 18 July 1956.

xxiii Charles Olson. The Special View of History. Ed. Ann Charters. Berkeley: Oyez, 1970: 8.

xxiv Mary Emma Harris. Robert Duncan Interview. 27 Dec 1971. Black Mountain College Archives.

xxv Duncan later recalled: “There were about fifteen students. Of these, the G.I.s were the paying students — most of them painters: Tom Field, Paul Alexander, Jerry van de Wiele, Ann Simone (who was to play Medea in Medea in Kolchis which I did with the drama class during the Summer semester). There were six in my basic techniques course in poetry, of whom Joe Dunn (first editor of the White Rabbit series), Eloise Mixon, and John Wieners were to become friends.” [Robert Duncan. “Ten Prose Pieces”. Ed. Robert J. Bertholf. Jacket Magazine, #28, Oct. 2005.].

xxvi First titled “Her Voice Across the Water Comes” and written during the late spring or early summer of 1956.

xxvii OF,10.

xxviii Notebook 19, April 1956, SUNYAB.

xxix Duncan’s Notebook 19 at SUNYAB includes some of his lecture notes from Black Mountain.

xxx Charles Olson, The Special View of History, Ed. Ann Charters, Berkeley: Oyez, 1970, 8.

xxxi Notebook 18, 10 May 1956, SUNYAB.

xxxii The Scott Street house was a haven for poets during the late 1950s, memorialized in John Wiener’s later published diaries titled 707 Scott Street. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1996.

xxxiii to Jess, ND [June 1956].

xxxiv Michael Rumaker. RDSF, 1.

xxxv The museum’s Gallatin Collection of modern art had been housed at New York University from 1938-1942 before moving to Philadelphia.

xxxvi to Jess, [16] June 1956, Other acquaintances in New York that summer included Al Novac, Ray Johnson, Ernst Kantorowicz protégé Robert Benson, and Nik Cernovich.

xxxvii to Jess, 22 June 1956.

xxxviii to James Broughton, 16 July 1956. M.C. (Mary Caroline) Richards had been a student at the University of California at Berkeley during the early 1940s and later taught at Black Mountain College.

xxxix It was Fenichel who had secured Duncan a job as a typist that summer, primarily preparing manuscripts for writers.

xl to Jess, 25 June 1956.

xli from Robin Blaser, ND [1956] UCB.

xlii to Jess, 1 July 1956.

xliii Kevin Killian. Interview with Robin Blaser. 22 May 1992.

xliv OF,15.

xlv to Jess, 8 July 1956.

xlvi from Robin Blaser, ND [1956], UCB.

xlvii to Jess, ND [20 July]1956.

xlviii to Jess, ND [August] 1956.

xlix to Jess, 7 Aug 1956. In Duncan’s chapbook Medea at Kolchis, published by Oyez in 1965, he acknowledged the following cast: Garrow: Wesley Huss, Jason: Donald Mixon, The Doctor: Erik Weir, Medea: Ann Simone, Arthur: Louis Marbury (first night) and John Wieners (second night), Edna: Eloise Mixon.

l Martin Duberman notes these performances as taking place on the 29th and 30th of August.