A few years ago, San Francisco Renaissance poet Landis Everson was yanked out of obscurity in California by an ambitious young poet and editor from Cambridge, MA: Ben Mazer. Ben’s not an intellectual, but he’s ambitious and he’s got a nose for the scene and writes poems as good as anyone alive today and he’s also a musician and eccentric and personally intense; he’ll write the most famous poets in the world and get them to blurb his work. Thanks to Ben Mazer, who writes for the defunct-while-it-waits-for-more-funding Fulcrum, Landis Everson of Jack Spicer’s circle came back to us for awhile.
I knew a gay Boston poet, Antonio Giarraputo, who went to Harvard with Frank O’ Hara, knew Robin Blaser, when Blaser worked at Harvard’s Widener library and Jack Spicer, when Spicer worked at the rare book room at the Boston Public Library and John Wieners from around town, because Tony moved in his circles. Tony had lots of stories about them.
I rented a room in his Coolidge Corner, rare-book-african-art stuffed apartment during the last decade of his life and made some tapes of his reminicences, which I have somewhere. Tony spoke his mind. To John Ciardi, when John said he was going to translate Dante, “But, John, you don’t know Italian!” Tony did, and several other languages fluently besides; he also sang opera, and once John Wieners told Tony he wasn’t wanted by his circle by writing Giarraputo a note: “Renaissance Man, go home!” Tony was too blunt, too classical, too ‘old school,’ for the ‘revolutionaries’ of the San Francisco Renaissance. Tony was put off by O’ Hara cruising the men’s room at Widener. Tony was a proud Harvard graduate, a Fulbright scholar, and he fought in World War II, at D-day.
When I knew Tony, in the last years of his life, he was an overweight diabetic who lolled about watching his favorite TV show, “All in the Family,” passionately hating on Archie Bunker (Tony was a die-hard Democrat) the tough Irishman who represented the bullies who picked on Tony when he was a sensitive kid of Sicilian immigrants from the slums with a bricklayer father who hated the fact his son wrote poetry. Tony used to boast that he was a bigot: “I hate everybody.” He was a erudite bigot: he could tell you what was wrong with the Florentines, and what was wrong with the Venetians. But Tony walked the walk. He wasn’t a professor, or a poet who won prizes; his career was teaching black kids in the Boston public schools, and he started local poetry clubs to which every street urchin was welcome: and they all came, and eventually the mayor of Boston proclaimed an Antonio Giarraputo Day.
I wasn’t wild about Tony’s poetry in English; most of it was too ‘modern-zen’ for my taste: he returned the favor by ridiculing my love of Poe. I once came upon some exquisite lyrics in Italian (metrical, rhymed) he wrote. “Tony, these are beautiful!” Tony just waved his hand, “Oh, those…”
It was rare that Tony went to a party, but when he did, he was the life of it. He was sad most of all in his last days because he mourned how the gay lifestyle was unkind to the old and the ugly. He did not remember O’Hara, Blaser, Spicer, and Wieners kindly; personally he couldn’t stand them. I can still hear the way he spat out their names. Did Tony give into bitterness and self-pity to a certain extent? He was traumatized by his war experience; I didn’t know him when he was young, so it’s hard to say where he was coming from. Maybe he was jealous. I don’t know. Perhaps that’s why Tony is forgotten and no poem of his can be found on the web, except the one below, which I happen to have, and am keeping alive.
Tony always meant to write a book on Cambridge and Boston’s poetry bohemia of the 40s and 50s. Tony, however, was a gregarious lyric poet, not a meticulous scholar, and he burned-out teaching public school in Roxbury, where they “pelt you with rocks and bury you,” as Tony would say. The book was never written (though there must be notes somewhere) and a lot of history was lost forever. Tony predicted that when he died, the “vultures will descend.” They did, scooping up his rare books and art collection and his personal papers. I had moved out, by then, and sadly remember how his writing life just disappeared.
Epitaph for an Unknown Soldier
(St. Lo, Normandy, 7/17/1944)
First of the fallen angels I have known,
I came upon you in obscurity
and found your arms embracing all the sky
as life escaped you. In the midst of dull,
engulfing battle, thunder and black flame,
this peace is terrible. Your eyes are glacial lakes;
your lips are dry: you are still beautiful.
I twist my helmeted neck to meet your gaze,
but stand dark, unreflected in those lakes
now frozen by an age which has no end.
I bow and hover, too afraid to touch,
unable to breathe life on wrinkling lips,
to see them tremble–and return to pain.
I bend to drink your death, and numbly wish
to halve my useless living and to share
what I have too much of, if you have none.
Antonio Alfredo Giarraputo