08 December 2010
More Albon on Davidson
This month will be the tenth anniversary of Dan Davidson’s death (2006). I had met Dennis a few months before then, in June, and as Dan and I were more or less speaking again, I mentioned this new chapter in my life and he was the perfect friend—excited, eager to listen, one question after another. I don’t remember how we got back in touch, but we began having phone chats again, on our best behavior, with only a trace of the old tensions underneath. I knew that Dan’s fierce engagement with the Bay Area avant poetry scene (what he liked to call “the writing community”) had almost completely burned off, leaving a man vulnerable to ghosts of the past—ghosts that once were passions—and looking for the next involvement, the thing that would lift him up again. He told me he’d been dating a nurse, one of many he knew at the medical center where he went for his weekly blood check. He was on a chemical leash that got shorter and heavier with each passing year—coumadin for his blood (he had a plastic heart valve), analgesics for his migraines, valium from his therapist, and toward the end, a disastrous round of interferon (which he stopped) for Hep C. This last diagnosis, made in his last year, was I think the last straw. As the entitlement era drew to a close and his SSI checks became more restrictive and he had to pay for his meds more and more out of his pocket, he must have sensed that the future was trying to head him off. Brice Marden talks about new beginnings that seem suffused with hope but which eventually turn out to be labyrinths that lead only backward—I wonder if Dan hadn’t also begun to feel that way. And yet during one of our chats, when I was ineptly trying to commiserate with him, saying something to the effect that life was hard with occasional patches of brightness, he stopped me short. What do you mean, he said, life has great swatches of brightness, towering heights of beauty and joy.
To borrow a few sentences from elsewhere, Dan was the first poet I’d met who lived his life as The Poet, with no interference from a day job or schedule, save weekly and/or monthly visits to various clinics. Dan was companionate but he also worked with monastic devotion on his poetry—after fifteen years, a lot of it still searches along a hard edge. He also worked to develop, if I can put it this way, his deportment—his self-presentation as a professional and engaged artist. Looking at “deportment” makes me see that it could apply to Dan in more ways than one. With his uncompromising apartness he was indeed “deported” from run-of-the-mill America, taking none of its pleasantries for granted, and always at odds with those who did, or could. (“Don’t I look acculturated?” he once asked when he showed me a photo of himself and his then-girlfriend Jenny, followed by his high-pitched laugh.) And he was also “deported” from the world in which being an engaged poet could mean something, could be a fact worthy of attention, if not automatic respect—as happens (used to happen?) in the world surrounding North America. So if his deportment were also these things, they were part of the background of his active deportment—the styles he chose in facing down such a world.
We finally got together in the present, after one plan after another snagged—with Dan, you always had to be prepared for plans to fall through. We hadn’t seen each other for a few years. I’d moved somewhere else, he was still (as always) on lower Haight, living his hand-to-mouth existence in digs he called “the Anarchy Arboretum” with a couple of steadfast roommates. I met him at my door, and was startled at his shoulder-length hair—he’d always worn it short. Our mutual wariness remained, and there were no handshakes or hugs, but up in my flat we started catching up and things seemed warm. One of his friends, a woman he had been at school with, mentioned at his memorial that one of the ways he’d changed from the last time they’d been together was that he blinked slower. And that’s what he did that afternoon in my flat: he blinked slower. At one point I mentioned a recent mugging, my first. It had been bad (clubbing, etc.) and as I was in the middle of my account I saw big tears rolling down his cheeks. He got up, I got up, and we embraced, Dan squeezing with all his strength.
He’d turned a corner. Dan had always been a mix of the almost irrationally combative and an almost equally perplexing vulnerability. But the combativeness had pretty much disappeared (the battles he chose were always uphill ones, and how long can that be sustained?), leaving the vulnerability and lostness. In the past, your desire to shelter him was always at war with the things he would do or say that made you feel you had to take him on. Now, shelter was everything.
I wish I could say we were able to resume our former closeness, but this was not to be. In addition to our past troubles, the hiatus of a few years had made a change in our orbits—we had different friends, different projects, different perspectives. And there was the time factor: I had a full-time job and was often too beat to do much in my spare time (Dan wasn’t someone you could chill with), whereas he lived on disability checks and had an open calendar. The irony, if that’s what it is, is cruel and stupid: I, with very little free time, am writing this ten years later; while Dan, who had so little time left, had all the time in the world.
The evening after he smothered himself his roommate Miguel and I wrote his obituary together over the phone. We were hoping to get it into the proper obit page in the Chronicle, but it ended up in the paid listings, the fee paid for by one of Dan’s teacher friends. Miguel and I stumbled over how to describe Dan’s non-poetry “activities.” We finally settled on “iconoclastic social activist,” with a bit of tongue in our cheek (though Dan would have unhesitatingly agreed). Activism of a kind it certainly was. Once he strolled into a Nordstrom and lingered near a display table of high-end cosmetic items just long enough to surreptitiously deposit a professional-looking sign he’d made at home which said FREE – TAKE ONE. Pranks like these were warm-ups for his most elaborate hoax, a bogus Bart Bulletin which he’d done up on his computer to look like the real thing, and which stated that, due to the current oil crisis, Bart had been compelled to “review its services.” After a few public relations paragraphs that agonized over the difficult decisions Bart had to face during such a shortage, the bulletin dropped the other shoe and said that it would be forced to raise fares by 80%—and all senior and handicapped fares would be discontinued. He took the original and photocopied a ream of these bulletins; then descended the stairs of the 16th and Mission Bart Station and fearlessly deposited them in the Bart Bulletin receptacles, using his long overcoat to shield what he was doing from the security cameras, then went home and waited for the shit to hit the fan. Alas, this cherry bomb turned out to be a dud—after a few people called the administration offices to protest this new policy, the bulletins were found and pitched, and that was that.
Though Dan relished confrontation and courted it more aggressively than anyone I’ve ever known, some of his oppositionality could be conventional. During the first Gulf War he made a simple 8 X 11 page, which said simply SAY NO TO WAR, in big caps that filled the sheet, then made copies and put and plastered them everywhere—on retail bulletin boards, stacked in cafés, left in magazines at newsstands. People would find them and put them up in their homes. You’d take the bus and see the signs in apartment windows all over San Francisco.
His subtlest move, conceived and carried out during that first Gulf War, was also the one most deserving of “iconoclastic social activism.” It was a small rectangular pin the size of a stick of Dentyne, worn on your shirt and bearing a single word: IRAQI. Dan wore his pin all the time and made them for anyone who wanted one. I don’t know if Dan knew the work of Guy Debord (I suspect not, since he never mentioned Debord, and he mentioned everything) but his IRAQI pin was the perfect Situationist gesture. Transforming himself into a walking signifier of either a declared enemy “overseas” or a helpless civilian caught between two power-thugs, he forced people viscerally to have a view, and if they had one already, to assess and declare it. Strolling through the Financial District, down chi-chi Union and its phalanx of boutiques, or any neighborhood in the city that had a well-greased notion of the good life in America, Dan was a walking rip in the texture. He worked the effect of statement made away from a platform and dropped into the gaps of everyday living: if you can’t bring the war home you can at least create a flash point that made avoidance of the discussion impossible. The hostility he provoked with this little pin was remarkable to behold. What’s that supposed to mean, people would ask. What do you think it means, he asked them back. Even people not disposed to favor the war could be put off by the line in the sand, and for Dan a person polarized by such activities was a person jarred into seeing the picture whole (though this was an outcropping of one of his worst beliefs, that only polarized positions are deeply held).
Dan exemplified the spirit of the WW1-era avant-garde more than anyone I knew, and he felt the attendant pressurization. True avant-gardists are soldiers, working in ways that incur risk and casualty. Every successful gesture is further proof of the imperturbability of the mass. James Baldwin said that his writing was directed not toward the unconscious ones, who were probably beyond influence, but toward the relatively conscious, the ones who might be capable of dilating their perspective. Dan never made this distinction (he would have seen it as timidity) with the result that every incursion, even one that felt like a victory, was also a solitary head beating against a wall.
Not that the last life has been taken its forms
hold and tend passage held in the light of hand
a sweetening in the eyes a drinking
that lays answering
lending a final portion squeezed out of debt
in the relationship of the overlooked a shaping
of the personal
not to have a clock bringing its share.
These opening lines from Bureaucrat, My Love, Dan’s best poem, seem to be counting down the seconds even as they reference sweetening and light. Written four years before he died, it’s far from his last poem (some spiky, directly topical work was still to come) but it’s the poem that seems, in my view, the one most haunted by a future reckoning he will never know. Something is being gathered and rehearsed.
Building on an idea of Nietzsche, Massimo Cacciari speaks of “posthumous people,” artists and thinkers whose effect on others happens only after their death. “They are misunderstood more than others, more than actual people. And yet they are heard better (…) The ghosts of posthumous people practically force themselves to be heard, practically cause the dimension of hearing to be rediscovered.” And yet this is surely a belief among the living, among poets—not as posterity but as the message in the bottle, as transmission to an imagined distant listener, who may turn out in the end to be only a future one. Dan’s “relationship of the overlooked” is of this process. The overlooked could be the poet but could also be the unfound thought or preoccupation the poet is trying to pass to others, who may be able to take on the urgent whisperings in the poem and synthesize some of its nature in their own time on earth. Poetry-making, with its investment in imaginal and semantic complexes as bearers of hope, is also at times an act of mourning. Poets as posthumous people are the ones who consolidate and commemorate the loss of nature. They remember, then remember remembrance. They know that this is not one-directional. Reflection beams forward as much as it sifts down onto spent time.