Milton Resnick, Poet-- In Memory

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:09 AM
Milton Resnick walked in on me while I was tending the Blue Yak Bookstore on East 10th Street, showed me his poetry, in three small, neatly printed pamphlets, & later taught me, as I came to know him, what it meant to be devoted to art as the center & pivot of a life. The year must have been 1961, since the Blue Yak didn’t last for more than that year, & probably in the spring, before Diane & I went off to Europe in the summer. (The store had vanished by the time we got back – or if it hadn’t completely vanished, was on the way to doing so.)

Milton’s declaration, right from the start, was that he was a painter who had given up painting in favor of poetry & that he thought that I & my fellow poets should now give up poetry in favor of painting. I took him at his word – or pretended to – & for a part of the next year I busied myself with photomontage or collage & even got into painting for a spell, when Diane & I hid away for a week on a small island (Picton) in the St. Lawrence River. My commitment to painting wasn’t very deep of course, but I learned something from Milton & from the actual feel of doing it, the act (however brief for me) of being in it. I wrote about it too, as follows, though I think it got into my poetry in other ways as well:

I sweat too much, I have
a long way left
& I would like to know death
not as this fear
but as my hand touched form
when painting
opening, the shadow of a color
on my arm

[from “Three Interiors” in Between, 1963]

But what was much more important for me was Milton’s work & presence – a ferocious devotion to painting & to whatever else it was that drove his own work. He was uncompromising & quickly dismissive of what he didn’t love – a temperament in that sense very different from my own – but his loves were also powerful & contagious. It was his enthusiasm, I know, that first turned me to the paintings of Arshile Gorky & led to a book-length gathering of mine I called The Gorky Poems. I didn’t dedicate the book to Milton, as possibly I should have, but I have a sense that I borrowed from him a certain ferocity – something of his rant, I thought, more than of mine or Gorky’s, or something in the mix along with ours:

What men!
What stone in their voices!
What glass in their blood!
What iron! What flesh!
What bright eyes!

This stone, this iron
in a dream
Still worse when no one dreams it.

[from “The Pirate (II),” in The Gorky Poems]

I was also deeply moved by Milton’s poetry, to which my first response, as often the case in those days, was to publish a group of his poems in the magazine I was then publishing & editing, Poems from the Floating World. I had an idea, even then, of the ways in which certain artists had crossed or blurred the line between poetry & painting (or between poetry & art, to put it that way) – Arp, Picabia, Kandinsky, Ernst, among the ones whom I was then pursuing, & Schwitters & Picasso the ones I would pursue much later. In Milton’s four small books – Up & Down, followed by Journal of Voyages 1, 2, & 3, all published consecutively in 1961 – I found an equivalent shift from one genre to another. It was not a question of mixing genres, which began to interest me in work by other poets & artists who were then emerging, but of carrying the intensity he had lavished on painting into a new medium – that of words. That he did it instantly & with equivalent grace & fury astonished me, as did his natural & credible assumption of the poet’s [bardic] voice:

I release my poems upon cities
upon cities
a human soul circles
towers of smoke
lance the sky

& again, from a place of anxiety shared by many a poet/artist “in advance of techne”:

yellow fingers scratch showers of sweat
I make a noise in my throat
black be blacker be feared
fear teaches poetry
whose double pin hooks deep into all of us

Some of that fear, I came to think, was a Jewish thing – at least that image came up very strongly when he & Pat Passlof moved from the East Village into the abandoned synagogue they bought, circa 1963, on Forsythe Street. I had begun to work, however tentatively, toward Poland/1931, which would be my attempt to resuscitate Jewish “identity” & simultaneously to put it into question, so the synagogue (one of many in what had been the heavily Jewish Lower East Side) was a point of fascination for me. It was for him also, something that he described to me as a “return” – to a place where he could go & “be a kike again.” That was exactly how he put it, though by the time he got there, Forsythe Street had turned heavily hispanic & was – their block at least – a dangerous part of a notoriously dangerous neighborhood. In the midst of that Milton & Pat turned their synagogue into a green paradise, filled with plants & birds, a workplace & oasis in a hostile world.

Our last dinner at their place – before Milton got his own synagogue on Eldridge Street & the neighborhood turned decidedly Chinese – was one that still stands out in recollection. It was late into the evening & we were sitting in the sunken part of the house, a large high room below street level but with tall windows facing onto Forsythe Street. There had been some talk about drug pushers & other local dangers, all of which Milton put down in favor of his sense of a “return.” It was in the middle of that talk or soon thereafter – with dinner, I think, already over – that we heard several loud bangs from the street outside & looked up – startled – to see a body, illuminated by a street light, dropping to the ground. We continued to watch in silence as other murky figures loomed up & the rotating colored lights of a squad car came on the scene with siren blasting.

I hardly remember what else we saw – an ambulance at some point & the movements & voices of shadowy spectators after the fact. Finally the street emptied out & there were no sounds coming back at us. No one seemed ready to say anything, the rest of us looking toward Milton to see how he would respond. There was a long pause – very long – & Milton then said – to no one in particular I thought: “I have never felt so safe in my whole life.”

I treasure that moment in memory, as I treasure his art & the devotion he gave to it even when he turned from it in anger. That anger I think never left him but I would also like to believe that he maintained alongside it the determination to be the master of his life & death against all odds. He will be remembered for the beauty & reality that his art brought into the world, & in my mind at least he will remain a real poet, a fellow poet, as he was when I met him back in some mutually vanished past.

Jerome Rothenberg
Encinitas, California
July 2004

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