Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 17 March 2008

Richard Brautigan, my mum and I

Everyone is supposed to have at least one good book in them. My mother did. She wrote poems. I don't know when exactly she started but I suspect it wasn't until she was in her late fifties at least. She only ever mentioned them towards the end of her life but never let us read them. After she died I found two old school jotters in which she had written her poems – one was my sister's, the other belonged to my sister's best friend. There weren't many of them, barely enough for a slim chapbook, that's all. But once we got back home, my wife transcribed all of them onto her PC, made them look pretty and printed out the tiniest run, five copies, one for us, one for my daughter, one for my mother-in-law and one each for my siblings. She called the collection Doodlings, a word taken from one of the poems. It seemed appropriate.

In them she talks about her family, her love of animals, nature and the realisation that she wasn't going to be around much longer. The one that reminds me the most of her is one about a daddy longlegs she put outside. Later, feeling guilty, she tried to let it back in but it ran away. Mum then couldn’t sleep and crept downstairs to sit by the window waiting to see if she could see it and rescue the poor thing from freezing outside:

I'd thrown him out and don't know why
Now the poor thing will surely die
So I opened the window very wide
Thought I'd get him back inside

But lo and behold what did I see
Well nothing where he used to be
I'm finding now I cannot sleep
To the window I must creep

The style is old-fashioned, the technique unspectacular but none of that is important. I will treasure them. I wonder how many other people out there are sitting there with jotters like that.

One of my favourite authors is Richard Brautigan. I may have mentioned this before. I don’t mention him nearly as often as I name drop Beckett and that saddens me because I think he is a wholly underrated author. I've never come across any of his books in the UK other than once in a second hand shop in Saltcoats. And that is a shame. Most writers have authored a book that I might be tempted to read twice, even three times, but there isn’t a thing by Brautigan that I couldn’t read over and over again and never tire of. My favourite is In Watermelon Sugar. I don’t think it's necessarily his best book but it was the first I read and as such will always have a special place in my mind.

In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar. I'll tell you about it because I am here and you are distant.

Wherever you are, we must do the best we can. It is so far to travel, and we have nothing here to travel, except watermelon sugar. I hope this works out.

He could easily have written about the remorse felt over putting a daddy longlegs out a window to die.


When I was a child
I had a graveyard
where I buried insects
and dead birds under
a rose tree.
I would bury the insects
in tin foil and match boxes.
I would bury the birds
in pieces of red cloth.
It was all very sad
and I would cry
as I scooped the dirt
into their small graves
with a spoon.
Baudelaire would come
and join in
my insect funerals,
saying little prayers
the size of
dead birds.

         San Francisco
         February 1958

There is an innocence about his writing and there was an innocence about my mum. She would have enjoyed his style though maybe not always his subject matter, but she would never have read anything by him because it wasn't real. She never read fiction nor did she write it. Her poems were all biographical.

In that second hand shop I bought three Brautigan books: In Watermelon Sugar, Willard and his Bowling Trophies and The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966. I read them in that order. I think my second-favourite novel is The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 despite its unwieldy title. It tells the story of a librarian in a most unusual Californian library, a library that is open twenty-four hours a day (which is in itself unusual) but it is a receiving library for what is described beautifully in the book as "the unwanted, the lyrical and haunted volumes of American writing." The books are not catalogued using the standard Dewey Decimal Classification system; rather the authors select for themselves where they want their book to sit. Here are a few examples:

THE EGG LAYED TWICE by Beatrice Quinn Porter. The author said this collection of poetry summed up the wisdom she had found while living twenty-six years on a chicken ranch in San Jose.
         "It may not be poetry," she said. "I never went to college, but it's sure as hell about chickens."

THE CULINARY DOSTOEVSKY by James Fallon. The author said the book was a cookbook of recipes he had found in Dostoevsky's novels.
         "Some of them are very good," he said. "I've eaten everything Dostoevsky ever cooked."

He even gave himself a cameo:

MOOSE by Richard Brautigan. The author was tall and blond and had a long yellow moustache that gave him an anachronistic appearance. He looked as if he would be more at home in another era.
         This was the third or fourth book he had brought to the library. Every time he brought in a new book he looked a little older, a little more tired. He looked quite young when he brought in his first book. I can't remember the title of it, but it seems to me the book had something to do with America.
         "What's this one about?" I asked, because he looked as if he wanted me to ask him something.
         "Just another book," he said.
         I guess I was wrong about him wanting me to ask him something.

My mum's book would have been at home there though she would have chided the librarian for living in sin and probably told his girlfriend to get some clothes on. You can read the entire first chapter on-line here and it seems a young lady called Olivia Pepper is intending to put on a dramatisation of the work in the San Francisco Bay Area later this year or possibly early in 2009 according to an e-mail I've recently received from her. You can find out about it on her MySpace page.

In homage to Richard Brautigan, The Abortion's concept was put into practice in the form of the Brautigan Library. It was housed originally in a section of the larger Fletcher Free Library in downtown Burlington, Vermont but there are plans some day to relocate to the Presidio Branch of the San Francisco Public Library. The library accepts only unpublished manuscripts. The sad thing is the library can’t be visited any more. It’s a bit in limbo. The San Francisco Public Library might be the new home but nothing has been confirmed yet. It would be a shame to see this project die a death.

At the time Fletcher co director Amber Collins told a reporter: "For the first couple of years it was here, we had people begging us to allow their books up here. Some people sneaked in and put their books on the shelf," she added, pointing to a book with a different size and binding from all the others, titled Strive for Mediocrity: A Memoir. "It still amazes me how many people I'll find here," she continues, "People are fascinated by the idea that books shouldn't be regulated by the fact that you have to have a publisher." - The Boston Globe

Jessamyn West describes the library when it was in Vermont as follows:

I don't know the origins of the Brautigan Library here in Burlington, but the plaque said "The American Forever, etc. presents The Brautigan Library A home for unpublished literature" There is also a note from Garry Trudeau on a nearby wall that says something to the effect of "neat idea, don't quit your day jobs."

The books are mainly typewritten with the occasional handwritten or word processed book. They have almost all been bound with dark blue library binding. They are loosely grouped into categories such as Humour, Nature and Meaning of Life. I'm not sure who decided on the classification system.

There is a small card catalogue on top of the poetry dispenser which has the books categorized according to Title and Author, but the cards are in no particular order. Well, they are grouped according to first letter, but the letters themselves are out of order. It's hard to tell if this is purposeful or accidental but you could look at every book in a long afternoon, so it hardly matters.

Some of the works there already include the short-story collection Sterling Silver Cockroaches, the economic treatise Three Essays Advocating the Abolition of Money and the poetry collection A Shoebox to Hold the Unknown.

You can read a nice blog about Todd Lockwood the guy who decided to start the ball rolling after watching Field of Dreams. in which he recalls:

A few months ago, we received a two-page manuscript from a woman who drives a school bus. It was filled with spelling errors and incomplete sentences. While trying to decide whether or not to send it back for corrections, I finally just read it, as it was written. The short story tells of sunlight beaming through a snowstorm "like a diamond patch." So beautiful was this moment that she pulled the school bus off the side of the road so her passengers could enjoy it. I learned something in reading her story: Ideas with vision will usually survive a less-than-perfect presentation. But the most elaborate presentation in the world is no substitute for vision.

An online-version, although it is not connected to the Burlington library, can be found at the Brautigan Virtual Library where you can deposit your book. It only has seventeen titles listed but looks like it's still on the go.

Examples are:

A WRITER IN EXILE FROM MUSKOKA by Martin Avery. This is a sequence of poems written to celebrate the prospect of going home, moving back to Muskoka, after a quarter century of living like a writer in exile from Muskoka.

THE BALLAD OF ANGELA'S STORY by Larry Kimmel. "A single narrative poem in ballad form, about "Angela" and her account(s) of her day's adventure(s)"

There is another venture, a British initiative in the same vein, called Library of Unwritten Books.

Inspired by the non-selective ethos of the Brautigan library, Caroline Jupp and Sam Brown founded Library of Unwritten Books in 2002. The books are collected through random encounters in parks, city streets and public places, and by invitations to visit literature festivals, public libraries and community centres. People are prompted to spontaneously record their unrealised ideas, fictional tales, and personal histories. There is no selection procedure and all contributors to the library receive a free copy of their own unwritten book. Limited edition mini books are published from transcripts of the interviews, which are made available to readers at exhibitions and special events. Touring book-boxes also display the books at everyday venues such as cafés, pubs, libraries and launderettes.

I think it is a lovely idea. I liked MY SECRET MARBLES by Marble Mya (aged 9) best. I think that would have been my mum's favourite too. She loved children, children and animals especially cats; grownups she could take or leave. There's a nice BBC article about the library here.

In 1984, at age 49, Richard Brautigan died of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot-wound to the head in Bolinas, California. My mum would have been annoyed at him; suicide is wrong. My mum died in 1998 from pneumonia. Since this obviated the need for her to die from the incurable cancer from which she was suffering, I really couldn’t find it within myself to be annoyed with her.

Here's a poem I wrote for Richard Brautigan:


(for Richard Brautigan)

A man cannot lose what he never had
but he can give up trying to get it.
Just walk off the track.
Come, join the rest of us on the bleachers.

It's that easy.
Catch your breath now.
It's too hot to run.

I've heard say parallel lines never meet.
Sometimes they seem to – in the distance –
they disappear over the horizon
so no one knows for sure.

Friday, 25 May 2001

And here's one I wrote for my mum:


My mother made do almost every day of her life.

There wasn't that much to the dish. To tell you the truth,
Mum could make do
with almost nothing at all.

She'd put on the pot and just let it simmer for hours.

And all of my life so far I've tried to do the same
but I find mine
always leaves a bitter taste.

I wish I knew what her secret ingredient was.

Friday, 18 July 2003

A shame that neither of them will read them. And a shame they won't write any more books too.


Kathy McIntosh said...

What a fascinating post, Jim. I always look to you to learn. I lived in the Bay Area and had not heard of the Brautigan libraries.

And I so enjoyed your poems...the one to Brautigan seemed, well, peeved that he'd given up and the one to your mother touched me (and reminded me of my mother).

Bill Byrnes said...

I liked your article. I started reading Brautigan in 1975, when a friend gave me a copy of Springhill Mine Disaster after I became the first in our group to have a poem published. Then I started collecting.

I have a nephew who started writing in High School, so one birthday I sent him that book, because it includes the poem "Hey, this is what it's all about", one I have always liked.

I am also a Joni Mitchell fan, and I have always wondered if perhaps he was the Richard in "The last time I saw Richard" from lines like:

"you laugh he said, you think you're immune, go look at your eyes they're full of moon, you like roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you pretty lies"


"Richard, you haven't really changed I said, you're only romanticizing some pain that's in your head"

It's a conversation between two disillusioned romantics, and I think Brautigan would have been a perfect fit, plus being in Frisco about the same time.

I was directed to your story by my ex-wife, and long time friend, and I'm glad she did. I was in the midst of the February blahs and quoting Eliot. When I start quoting Eliot, I need a nudge, and between the two of you. you gave me one. Thanks

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for dropping by the blog, Bill. Always nice to see a new name in the comments. I'm afraid I'm more likely to be caught quoting Beckett when I get to 'that stage'.

And Kathy, I lived in my home town for about sixteen years before I learned their was a Burns museum on the High Street and it was a lot smaller that San Francisco. I must have walked past it a thousand times.

Ken Armstrong said...

I see a 'Moose-theme' developing in your Blogs.

Just thought you should know.


Glenn Ingersoll said...

When I first read Brautigan as a kid I didn't like him; a teacher showed me his poetry and it didn't look like poetry. Watermelon Sugar was also my first exposure in prose -- Huh? I thought.

After high school I read Troutfishing and I loved it. So I read everything Brautigan I could get my hands on. Now he's a favorite. Odd that.

Dave King said...

I must confess that i had never heard of Brautigan, but Watermelon Sugar has given me a taste for him. Regrettably, I had not heard of your mum either. There must be so many talents hidden away or not appreciated. If everyone has one good book inside them, I wonder if everyone has one great poem also. What a shame we can't know everyone, at least by their best work!
Thanks for that, Jim.

Gabriel Orgrease said...

At some point in the 80's my wife befriended Brautigan's daughter, when we lived in Brooklyn in a railroad flat above OTB (off track betting, the horses). She, with her husband, were intent on sucking us into selling Amway - multi-level soap selling. We had not too long previous to that had an encounter with Amway where the more prosperous and officious sellers told me that I could not bring in to the pep rallies the hairy, bearded, poorly dressed tramps (my best friend) to sell soap. I figured, who else needed soap more?

We left that particular encounter and went down the road to spend the remainder of evening in a biker bar where I was out of place in a suit jacket. My friend told the bikers that though I might look weird I was an ok guy. We had a good time. Met a fellow whose job it was to pour bags of stuff into the giant vats to make Campbell's soup.

So, as it was with our fear of soap and a sense of retribution we did not make the best impression on Richard Brautigan's daughter or her husband.

I read Brautigan too many decades ago. Possibly I missed something here or there but my tendency is to read everything of an author. I think for you I will go look again. But as it is I have Fresh here and have not got to that reading. Slow, slow, slow.

I really love the idea of library for unpublished books. One of my favorite 'published' titles, I have the book here somewhere, Autobiography of a Pebble. I am also a proponent of the mono-book, books of which there is only one copy printed.

Conda V. Douglas said...

Another great post, Jim, and I too adore the idea of an unpublished library and hope that it survives, thrives and multiples.

And I love Brautigan's work. My only regret is I can't get the image of his death out of my head, forget it, move on. It's his life and words that matter.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks Gabe, Dave and Conda for your feedback. Always nice to get.

Dave, I'm glad I've managed to point someone new towards Brautigan. I'm quite sure you won't be disappointed. As for my mum, everyone loved my mum. Her big weakness was animals especially strays. And she would never watch animal programmes because she hated to see them getting eaten or hurt.

Gabe, interesting story about Ianthe. I read her book a while ago. It was quite interesting. I enjoyed it more than the one Salinger's daughter wrote about him. I like the idea of the mono-book too. In the old days I used to make up little books for people I cared about. Nowadays with POD I could present them with a real book. That would be nice.

And Conda, yes, it is sad that he chose to die like that. It would have interesting to see him develop as a writer. For some reason I seem to be to detach myself. I think basically it's because the guy who killed himself wasn't the guy who wrote the books, that was what he became. It's like the photo of my mum on the unit, it shows an old, albeit cheery woman, but that isn't really how I remember her, that's just how she ended up.

Writing Nag said...

Thank you for sharing your mothers poem, I love its simple sweetness, how she couldn't sleep for letting out the spider. How wonderful to find her poems and honor her words by printing up the chapbook. As always a great post that inspires me.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, Writing Nag. My mother didn't always have much time for us humans but there wasn't an animal she could pass. All the cats we ever had were strays and as soon as one died, within a remarkably short time, another would take its place. Cats aside she had a robin who would come to the door step so she could feed it, hedgehogs she'd leave milk out for and foxes she would feed. Because of where we live I can't have a cat but I'd love one. Instead we have a cockatiel my wife rescued from the windowsill. He was being attacked by a magpie at the time. It's taken a couple of years but I think he's finally got us trained.

pundy said...

Interesting post. Very moving in a quiet, understated way. I enjoyed it a lot. Thanks.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Bill, glad you appreciated it.

Anonymous said...

Good post Jim. Interesting stuff. Richard Brautigan is a jewel that never fails to sparkle.

As an aside, a few years ago I tried to climb into Ianthe Brautigan's attic in Santa Rosa, California, very stoned on hash brownies, looking for her father's ashes to put in a joint. The ashes were up there somewhere but I didnt find them. Poor Ianthe was mortified. "You can't smoke my dad." The horror.

And no I wont be putting my name to this post!

Poet in Residence said...

Thanks for sharing your mum's poem and your lovely poem about your mum.
The secret ingredient was love and like the salt in the soup a little is often enough.

Jim Murdoch said...

You’re right there, Gwilym. My mother had a lot of love in her and yet was surrounded by unresponsive people (myself included). So she expressed her love to animals, cats primarily but hedgehogs, foxes, birds, she really wasn’t fussy and yet she never watched nature programmes because she hated to see animals attack each other.

Anonymous said...

Jim - this one, this title caught my eye on Friday and I had some time this morning to read it. There are still only 17 books in the Brautigan Virtual Library which seems to be a shame. I know I've told you I never had much success in my English studies in school. . . and that I went to catholic school. I wonder if there is any connection?

I always did better in summer school which was held in the local public high school and one summer we read Brautigan's "The Abortion. . . " and Chaim Potok's "The Chosen." I became a lifelong fan of Brautigan and Potok that summer - books that never would have been assigned at St. Morphine High School.

Even my children know about 'black, soundless' days. (Thursdays in watermelon sugar).

Your mom's poetry must feel like gold in your hands. Your book's dedication to her - never read a word you wrote - sticks in my memory.

You know this only too well - the way that you weave an article together is quite amazing. In this one, your mom, Richard Brautigan, the libraries, the poetry. . . the insect connection - all just great.

My mom, too, is not a fan of fiction, unless it involves a murder that is unequivocally and judiciously solved at the end of the book. And she's never read a word I've written - except a story I wrote a long time ago called "Almost California.' (It's on THLOL for what it's worth - and is my biggest writing payday ever $350.00! in 1983). It was probably a little too autobiographical for her. It's about brothers and music and over-worked mothers and dead fathers. . . in other words it's comedy. And since the father is not murdered as far as we know, it wasn't really her cup of coffee.


I hate when comments become about the commenter - and this is what I've just done.


Please accept my apologies.

I find myself wondering if there isn't a Collected Works of the house of Murdoch in the publishing future - Mrs. M can print six copies this time - Please consider this my pre-order.

These old postings are gems.

Jim Murdoch said...

There is nothing to apologise for, Koe. I have no problem with you taking the time to share a bit about yourself in the comments; I often do. It’s what makes these interchanges feel more like a conversation, albeit a conversation that takes place over weeks and weeks. So, please continue.

I don’t know what it is about kids and their parents. I think I’ve read maybe a half dozen of my daughter’s poems but I only have one which is framed beside my bed. I don’t even know if she still writes. I doubt it. Her life is quite settled now and all she seems to have time for is work and her university studies.

I have mixed feeling about my mum’s poetry. It should have brought us closer but our approaches were so different. I remember seeing a TV programme once which featured Pete Townshend of The Who with his dad, Cliff, who had been a professional saxophonist in his day. The programme ended with the two of them jamming together and it was such a sad thing to see. Their styles simply didn’t gel. The best one could say about them is that they were playing in the same key which would be the equivalent to my mum and I writing all our poems in English.

There is another aspect to that dedication, the fact it comes second. My dad got the first dedication. Mum was treated all her life as a second-class citizen in our house – my dad was very old school that way – which is why he was the only one I even tried to read my stuff too. Sad really.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Jim - I stopped back to see if I could change my mind about the comments - becoming about the commenter - and I see you've already forgiven my bit of foolishness. You are right - I so much more prefer when postings become about conversations. I think that's why I tend to gravitate towards emails too.

I got an invitation from you to follow a blog a little while ago, which I will.

We had a meeting with our child's special ed teachers this past week. One of "Jilly Nines" teachers told us that although Jilly has said she "hates poetry" she actually does a nice job with her poems as opposed to her paragraphs which are, I gather, not nice. I can't imagine our children as adults yet. There is so much today in our lives that it's hard to see tomorrow.

Your analogy of Pete Townsend and his dad is great.

Your post has given me some good food for thought.


Jim Murdoch said...

I think all you can do is look back to yourself and see where you made those decisions that made you who you are, Koe. If you'd known me when I was eight there's no way you would have pencilled me in as a writer. At that age I wanted to be a mathematician, at twelve a composer. I found I had a talent for computer programming - not quite maths but I guess it uses the same side of the brain - and although I no longer write I have a huge music collection and it's on constantly. I guess the love of words was in there too but it was never on the surface.

vjp said...

Jim - I suppose by now it's not a coincidence that when I look back at your archives that this one's title never fails to catch my eye. Although when I opened the comments this morning, I had not remembered that I had left comments here before. . .

I checked the Brautigan Library and it seems as if it has found a home in Vancouver, Washington.

I'll check back in here again in a year or so. . .

Jim Murdoch said...

It is a good title isn't it, Vito? And I do hope you pop in before another year has passed or you will have one helluva lot of reading to catch up on. For starters I have a review of one of Brautigan's later books to post.

Gwil W said...

Jim, thanks for the recent comments at PiR and the great link in this article.

vito pasquale said...

Hi Jim - so I find myself here again - a year or so later. I'm so pleased you've chosen to write about Brautigan again. I just this past week finished reading his poetry collection - Loading Mercury With a Pitchfork. I'm always on the lookout for his books at used book fairs. If I find Hawkline Monster or Dreaming of Babylon, I'll get them for you. (Both are in our library but I can't imagine borrowing them with the intent of never returning them. . . but if you ask, I will.) It's funny. His books are aging on the shelves, his writing, timeless but definitely (it seems to me) born in the '60s.

I think I enjoyed his writing so much because he was one of those writers, as you are, that inspire me.

Jim Murdoch said...

No, please don’t misappropriate any library books on my account, Vito. I have read the books; I simply don’t own copies. I have copies of the ones that really matter to me, the ones I will reread. I’ve never read anyone like him before or since. The closest I’ve come has been Erland Loe’s novel Naïve. Super which I would recommend you seek out. Other than him, nothing. Read my review and see what you think.

vito pasquale said...

Oh thanks for that JIm - I like the feel of that book. I just got it on kindle app. . Your review is on the money. I've been trying to write this story of two brothers, Robert and Charlie set in 1974, very short chapters - less than a full page, something that wouldn't matter which order one read the chapters in.

Here are two sample chapters!

I want to make a list of everyone who cannot be in
this book:

Richard Nixon.

Because he is not a crook and he told us so on
television. Everyone else is a crook or could be a
crook very easily.

My name is Charlie and I am nine years old. I am
writing this story for my brother Robert who is
twelve. He doesn't talk but I know what he means.

And so does. . .

Thanks again for the recommendation of Naive. Super.

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad to be of help, Vito. And I do like the sound of your Robert and Charlie story.

vito pasquale said...

I just enjoy coming back to this article now and again. . Time passes so quickly.

I've just read Ken Armstrong's blog post on you! and can't think of a nicer tribute than that. What he's written goes for me as well.

I know your writing and friendship have influenced my writing in ways large and small and I know I've never thanked you enough. So, I'll thank you again here.

I've got to get back to that Robert and Charlie book someday. . .

Jim Murdoch said...

You know the sad thing, Vito? I can’t even remember writing this post. The same goes for most of my posts. The articles get written and maybe six months, maybe a year later they get uploaded and before I can respond to comments on them I have to read them again because I can’t remember writing them. The same goes for posts by other people. A friend in Berkeley has been writing a blog about as long as I have and was asking her readers which were their favourites. I couldn’t remember. I just have a general feel for her writing. Not many specifics have stuck. I certainly couldn’t find any one with ease. Besides there’s always too much new to read although to be fair I read far less than I used to. The novelty has most definitely worn off and being online feels more like a job than a hobby these days. Not that jobs can’t be enjoyable—I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had a variety of very different jobs over the years—but after a while (I suppose about five or six years) we start to lose interest in them. My whole life, from about the age of sixteen, can be broken down into bite size chunks of about five to six years in duration. Carrie is very lucky to have held my attention for sixteen years.

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