Saturday, October 01, 2011

Just Kids (No Glitter)

Just finished reading "Just Kids," Patti Smith's 2010 memoir of her young life in NYC with her best friend Robert Mapplethorpe.

A few things that I noted:

"In the war of magic and religion, is magic ultimately the victor? Perhaps priest and magician were once one, but the priest, learning humility in the face of God, discarded the spell for prayer.

Robert trusted in the law of empathy, by which he could, by his will, transfer himself into an object or a work of art, and thus influence the outer world. He did not feel redeemed by the work he did. He did not seek redemption. He sought to see what others did not, the projection of his imagination."


"In my low periods, I wondered what was the point of creating art. For whom? Are we animating God? Are we talking to ourselves? And what was the ultimate goal? ... I craved honesty, yet found dishonesty in myself. Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself? ... [Robert] never seemed to question his artistic drives, and by his example, I understood that what matters is the work: the string of words propelled by God becoming a poem, the weave of color and graphite scrawled upon the sheet that magnifies His motion. To achieve within the work a perfect balance of faith and execution. From this state of mind comes a light, life-charged."


"It is said that children do not distinguish between living and inanimate objects; I believe they do. A child imparts a doll or tin soldier with magical life-breath. The artist animates his work as the child his toys. Robert infused objects, whether for art or life, with his creative impulse, his sacred sexual power. He transformed a ring of keys, a kitchen knife, or a simple wooden frame into art."


"He put his arm around my shoulders and walked me home. It was nearly dawn. It took me a while to comprehend the nature of that trip, the demon vision of the city. Random sex. Trails of glitter shaking from muscled arms. Catholic medals torn from shaved throats. The fabulous festival I could not embrace. I did not create that night, but the images of racing Cockettes and Wild Boys would soon be transmuted into the vision of a boy in a hallway, drinking a glass of tea."


"The artist seeks contact with his intuitive sense of the gods, but in order to create his work, he cannot stay in this seductive and incorporeal realm. He must return to the material world in order to do his work. It's the artist's responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation."


"Why can't I write something that would awake the dead? That pursuit is what burns most deeply. I got over the loss of [Robert's] desk and chair, but never the desire to produce a string of words more precious than the emeralds of Cortes. Yet I have a lock of his hair, a handful of his ashes, a box of his letters, a goatskin tambourine. And in the folds of faded violet tissue a necklace, two violet plaques etched in Arabic, strung with black and silver threads, given to me by the boy who loved Michelangelo."


...I stood there and looked at him. So peaceful, like an ancient child. He opened his eyes and smiled. "Back so soon?" And then again to sleep.

So my last image was as the first. A sleeping youth cloaked in light, who opened his eyes with a smile of recognition for someone who had never been a stranger.


I cried and cried when I was finished. For Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe and their youthful wrestlings with Art and The Universe. For them having each other. For Smith's understanding of and empathy for him and his creation process. For her thoughtful contemplation of what art and god are, how they intertwine, how their life-force are so important. Recently, I'd forgotten the latter. Her words helped me get back in touch, however briefly, and I'm grateful.

I suppose I also cried (and am now crying) for the one true friend of my youth, Ginny. The nearly matching off-the-shoulder sweatshirts with Japanese writing that we wore around Azle in '83, prompting a 7-11 clerk to ask us, "Y'all ain't from here, are you?" Our exactly matching "Frances Lives" T-shirts, bought after watching "Frances" at a local cineplex. Our sneaking around to visit various churches to learn about god, having to lie to her conservative Baptist parents when we tried but failed to find the -- to them disreputable -- Unitarian church in Fort Worth. Our driving trip with her parents from Texas to Georgia, giggling over our "secret language" culled from the glossary at the back of Burgess's "Clockwork Orange" ("groody yarbles" = "balls" was a favorite). On that road trip, having to share a room with her parents, us in one bed flipping through TV channels with the sound turned all the way down, getting a secret thrill from watching the mild sex scenes in "Blue Lagoon" and hoping the snorers in the bed next to us didn't wake up. Our attempt at songwriting: "He's a Geek of the Pencil-Necked Variety" (inspired by "She's a Refugee" by U2); when I left her to go to college in the fall of '83, she had matchbooks made up with that title on the cover and sent them to my dorm...

The last time I saw her was in September 1985. By that time, she'd found a new "best friend," whom she brought with her to Austin. Ginny'd stolen 100s of cassette tapes from the Fort Worth mall record store where she worked and thought selling them in Austin would be a good idea. I remember the three of us approaching a crosswalk on the way to an Austin record store to sell the tapes, she and her other friend engrossed in conversation and me tagging along slightly behind. The crosswalk sign was flashing "DONT WALK." I stopped. She and her friend walked on, not even noticing that I wasn't with them. Broke my heart.

That same fall, I was in a poetry class taught by David Wevill. On November 6, 1985, I wrote a poem that I just now dug out of a box at the bottom of my closet. At the bottom of the poem I'd written, "for Ginny and 'Skippy'" --- Sandra, who was in that class, was "Skippy."


...and she loved her street in passing
her neon name,
the sweet fame-glint of the glistening walk

she was careful where she stepped --
the puddles were hers, too,
diamond sax for her pleasure --
all wind and grit and dream for hire

loose, the girl without her shoes
had graced the night, had
made her peace --
and she smoothed her well-worn list,
kissing the names for warmth,
watching them wash in cool dissolve
rearranging to a clue
that would soon mean nothing --
nothing she would ever need to know

cold and wet, the streets may starve
no glitter -- though her
face glows


Ginny died in 1987, of cardio-pulmonary failure. I found out when I tried to call her in 1988, at her parents' home in Georgia, where they'd all moved a couple of years earlier. Her dad answered, and there was an embarrassing silence when I asked for her, then: "I thought we'd told all the Azle people... She died 6 months ago."


Rodrigo Miguel said...

Her friend's outfit, simply awesome!

Beth Austin said...

Um, yeah, that's what I always loved the most about Mapplethorpe -- his outfits!