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She-Stag and the Tiger of Wanawutu: Remembering Gregory Corso

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Gregory Corso and I met in the fall of 1977 in front of City Lights bookstore, then the hub of North Beach life. Its proprietor, poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, asked me recently, “Do you even know who you were with?” I, a mere mortal, hardly knew how to respond. Gregory himself used to ask me, “Do you know who you’re with?” He would answer that question himself: “You don’t even know who you’re with.” Then in an aside to an invisible audience of his gifted peers, living and dead, he’d add, “She doesn’t know.” Brutal. Just brutal.

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Gregory and I lived together off and on, and off again, and on, during the first half of the 1980s. In 1985, I left with our son, Nile, who was then eight months old. If you look at the dedication of Gregory’s Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit, which came out during those years, he names three children: Miranda, Cybele, Max; and their four mothers: Sally, Belle, Jocelyn, Lisa (Jocelyn, later a suicide, was Max’s birth mother, but Lisa raised him). Gregory was not yet counting his oldest daughter, Sheri, who surfaced as a surprise in 1985, or Nile, who was not yet born. Being the mother of one of Gregory’s children was not necessarily a distinction, nor an entitlement to Beat grandeur. I mention it because I have always felt that I was in good company among those women and also because I now understand that I was lucky to have come out of the experience somewhat intact. At the very least, I was mad for Gregory, and I didn’t die from it.

I’ve often been told, and have often told myself, that Gregory — though he certainly did exist — was probably not who I thought he was. The poet Bob Kaufman once called him “The Tiger of Wanawatu” and, less warmly, “The Poetry Mafia.” Gregory may, in fact, have been have been a New York street hustler and con man, though I don’t like to think that was the case. Of course, even if that were true, it would be only a piece of it. The Greeks knew. Oedipus himself did his best to be blind. Maybe Tiresias was more on the right track. People tend to be the person we experience them as being — to me, Gregory was my Greek mythology guy, my living, breathing Poet with a capital “P.” He was better than Byron or Shelley (notice I don’t say Keats), I now understand, because he was alive, very much so.

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Even years after Gregory and I met at City Lights, I didn’t know much about him. In fact, he remained mysterious to most people. My oldest, closest poetry friend Alix and I speculated about where he lived, but no one seemed to know. He’d come out to the cafes first thing in the morning. We’d see him come and go all day and then he’d disappear. I had heard tales though, about his middle-of-the-night visits and alcohol-fueled rampages. He was periodically 86’ed (banned) from many of the bars and cafes in the neighborhood but somehow charmed his way back to all but a few.

One day, Gregory wanted to look at the ocean and asked me for a ride. When we came back to North Beach, Gregory asked me to leave the car unlocked — a strange request. Why would I leave my car unlocked on the street in San Francisco? His answer was quite matter of fact. If he wasn’t going to sleep in my car — his Pullman for the night — he was going to sleep in someone else’s.

No wonder he got up early. That night I left it unlocked.

Shortly before Gregory and I got together — just before he came up to my apartment on the wrong side of Telegraph Hill at 1136A Montgomery Street to stay — I remember sitting at my kitchen table, recording a conversation with Gregory and Alix from the afternoon before.

I know now that I will never be more in my element than when I was sitting in that kitchen in the lit morning, at the table I’d bought at the Purple Heart Thrift Shop, with the golden morning sun streaming through the high windows. It appeared behind the Berkeley hills, warming the very air as its radiance spilled over Berkeley, across the watery sheets of the Bay, Treasure Island, the Bay Bridge, all the way to my kitchen windows, illuminating the room I had painted in several coats of light yellow paint. What light in that kitchen!

That day, I remember that as I wrote, the sun kept mounting in the sky, until it was full blast at my window:

Last night at dinner, Gregory turned on me because I wouldn’t let him come up to the house to ‘take a shower’ (his usual test — every time I see him we have to go through his will-you-let-me-into-your-house-do-you-really-love- me test and every time I say, ‘No.’ Every time he says, ‘You’d let George and you won’t let me.’ He turned to Alix to say, ‘She’s a cunt’ (meaning me). Alix answered, ‘No, she’s a deer,’ then she spelled it for him, ‘d-e-e-r’ — that I was skittish and easily frightened. Gregory answered that I was a ‘She-Stag.’ As we parted, he said to me, and to no one present, in that way he had, suddenly taking the conversation into dream realm:

‘When all the poems are carbon because they’ve been burned and you’re at the Garden, you jump on the She-Stag’s back and ride away.’

As I wrote, the sun warmed my hair and cast my silhouette inside a window of light that appeared against the yellow boards of the kitchen wall. I looked at my shadow outlined there and was amazed to see another shadow, this one made from smoke and flame, torquing upward from the top of my head, as if the top of my head were burning. When I moved my head, the shadow of flame moved with me. I felt calm and centered, but my brains were burning as I wrote.

One of our early trysts was not in this Montgomery Street apartment but a different one, belonging to another woman he was romancing at the time, someone we both knew. I am glad that I knew none of this. Fortunately, she was at work and remained there, sparing the three of us an awkward encounter. Gregory liked to say that this was “the beginning of our romance.” But we actually had many beginnings: there was one at the doctor’s office where he pretended to be blind, another at a poetry reading where he spat in his hand, to name a few.

I remember well our discussion of the tattoo on his upper arm. This was the first time I had ever seen it (it was his only one) and, to me, it looked like a stoplight. It was shaped in a rectangle standing on its short end, with two circles inside, one red and one green, with a sort of cord hanging from it.

“A stoplight?” Gregory was aghast at the suggestion he would have anything that banal. “Don’t you know,” he’d ask rhetorically with that typical inflection of his, the emphasis on “know.” “She doesn’t know,” he’d say again in an aside to that same invisible audience of his same gifted peers, living and dead, “That’s the scribe’s palette. Thoth’s palette. Don’t you get it? … Check it out.”

During that same encounter, he showed me one of his scars where a bullet had grazed him during a robbery attempt. I also noticed that he had deep claw-like scars on his lower inside arms and on his legs from the knees down. “I had a pet ocelot,” Gregory told me, and I was gullible enough to believe him. With Gregory I thought that anything was possible. I can see how some might think I was simply a dope.

The truth was that Gregory had collapsed veins from years of drug use.

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When Gregory felt well disposed toward someone, that person was “his”: “I do so love my George”; “I do so love my Max”; “I do so love my Kaye [me]”; and so on. When he saw me washing clothes in the sink or mopping the floor, he would smile and say with great affection, perhaps with a nod to my German heritage, “My Brunnhilde,” making us both laugh.

In thinking about his own heritage, Gregory liked to say that poets and writers he knew went to “your Yales and your Harvards” (pronounced “HAH-vahds” in his heavy New York accent), but “your Gregory went to the School of Hard Knocks.” Titles were reserved either for those he most revered or for those he most scorned. God he addressed with reverence: “Ah, Miss God!” If he were in a really toxic state, he would sometimes call himself God. “How do you handle being God?” he would ask and then answer, “By being a total fuck-up.” If Gregory suddenly addressed someone as “Mister,” with the emphasis on the first syllable, let that person beware.

Gregory once described the soul as a “white heart made of air.” This is the most perfect description of a soul that I have ever heard.

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For most of our years together, we slept separately. Or at least, I slept. I had a job and wanted to keep it. He was up most of the day and night smoking. I would periodically see him with his eyes “closed.” He “saw” me but only nodded, then returned to his dream state. The ashtray full of burnt matches and the little blue Mexican glass full of water on the kitchen table were the telltale traces of his habit. When he was in such a state, Gregory would sometimes sit up in his bed, or lie flat with his eyes closed, and slowly wave his arms in the air as he twirled his fingers. At those times, he was completely oblivious to the outside world. His dislocation from reality was sometimes so extreme and shocking that I would feel as if I were out of my own body too, just witnessing the scene.

One of the few times I ever saw Gregory sleeping peacefully was in Amsterdam. Even during that dreamy sleep, he would wake up every two hours or so. Was he human? In Elegiac Feelings American, he wrote:

I dream in daytime much too somber

to greet the angels
at my velvet shredded door

One of my light-hearted journal entries from this period reads: “Night flies in on black wings of Terror across the agitated sky.”

A recurrent dream Gregory had in prison was of a small girl glowing in a dark hole. The day he was released from jail, he took a train back to New York, and on it was a beautiful little girl, just as if his dreams had made her manifest. He was captivated with her and watched her for his entire journey back to the “real” world. I’ve often thought that Gregory’s vision of the little girl lighting the darkness revealed his own interior radiance — what he was able to preserve, or salvage, from his Dickensian childhood.

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Soon after prison (he was jailed at Dannemora for theft at 17, though he had lied about his age, claiming he was 18), Gregory was seated at his typewriter writing poetry, as he often did then in his Greenwich Village room. This day he was seated with his back to his locked door when he heard someone knocking on it. Without turning or getting up, Gregory said, “Come in,” though why he said so was a mystery to him, he told me, because he knew the door was locked. When he heard someone enter, he turned to see a startling apparition: a figure made entirely of light, wearing a black hat and wrapped in a dark cloak. Its face was white and shining and so was its raised hand. The figure pointed toward Gregory with a gesture that both directed and beckoned him. Gregory realized that he was being visited by a vision and that this vision was the Spirit of Life who had come to call on him at the very moment that he was creating a poem. He told no one about this experience but believed from that time forward he had found his own voice as a poet. Never one to sentimentalize an experience, he ended his recollection by saying: “Before that I was a lousy poet.”

Gregory often had more than one version of these stories. At another later time, he told me he thought the vision was Shelley’s spirit, who at that exact moment had taken Gregory’s body as his host. Shelley’s spirit would have equated with the Spirit of Life in Gregory’s mind in any case, so perhaps the distinction isn’t worth quibbling over.

I’m sure those who knew Gregory would be able to share a variety of what he called “takes” on this incident. I can imagine the outcry now: “But he told me…” “No, no — she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. He told me…” “I happen to know…” and so on. I don’t know what he told other people.

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There were so many questions I couldn’t answer then and may never answer now. He died in 2001. I like to think of what Gregory said to me in our first happy days together. “Kaye,” he paused before he finished, “do you know how rare this is?” This I did know. Yes.

“Rarely, rarely, comest thou, / Spirit of Delight!” These were some of his favorite Shelley lines after all.

Gregory is buried, not in a pauper’s grave as he’d requested on occasion, but near his beloved Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. The word “sprit” on his gravestone has been corrected to read: “spirit.”

I live in a condo in Connecticut at the moment, hardly a pauper’s grave, but maybe not a place of illumination either. That needs to come from within. Nile, the joy of my life, tells me he is about to marry someone I like a lot. All’s well. But nobody talks to me about She-Stags and the Garden anymore.

 

 

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