Readers familiar with John Carpenter’s 1980 horror classic The Fog may recognize certain aspects of the town conjured by poets anthologized in On the Mesa. It’s tiny—an isolated town on the Northern California coast, ruggedly sublime in its scenic seashore setting, hard to find, and eerily quiet. Quiet, that is, except when it seems suffused by a paranormal, autochthonous, force. Like the fictional town of Antonio Bay, On the Mesa is also celebrating an anniversary; however, things seem to have gone somewhat more smoothly in the case of the anthology, now handsomely reissued in an updated version from the Song Cave.
Situated as it is on the other side of the San Andreas fault, Bolinas lies on a different tectonic plate than the rest of the continent. You feel it when you make the unmarked turn off highway one, through a majestic stand of eucalyptus and cypress. The lagoon—and the rest of the U.S.—now on your left, you’ve passed into an adjacent reality. The town’s simultaneous remoteness and proximity to San Francisco resonates across the anthology. A pastoral Arcadia only an hour’s drive from the counterculture’s Haight Street ground zero, Bolinas offered the poets who lived there in the seventies both breathing space and intense community at once. Relationships were nonchalant and fervid, life in town both humdrum and composed of apparently nonstop activity. For a chronological and thoroughgoing understanding of the scene, anyone interested should look no further than Kevin Opstedal’s great series of essays “Dreaming As One” (which definitely might have been cited in this edition’s preface or afterword). The dreamy separateness of Bolinas also held within it a roiling ferment of engagement—poetic, political, romantic, you name it. Whatever mysterious force drew all these great poets to Bolinas (I’m guessing Joanne Kyger), it had a direct line to the muses for a number of years, and the shine hasn’t faded much since.
Because it attracted poets from across different countercultural but loosely affiliated scenes—beat, Black Mountain, New York school, West Coast zen—seventies Bolinas was a gumbo, a heterogeneity of voices and lives. There was emphatically no “Bolinas school,” there were just a lot of different poets all in Bolinas at the same time; and it’s important to note that some of the folks at the center of the scene weren’t poets at all, they were “just” neighbors. The original 1971 anthology reflected this to a degree; however, this fiftieth anniversary edition widens the scope of the moment, ushering in a company of nineteen other poets who certainly should have been originally included. These include some names with which many will be already familiar—Richard Brautigan, Alice Notley, Jim Carroll—as well as a few which will likely be less familiar: Duncan McNaughton, Lewis and Phoebe MacAdams, Stephen Ratcliffe. With these new additions, editors Ben Estes (of Song Cave) and Joel Weishaus (original editor of the 1971 anthology), point toward a future the original couldn’t have included, as well as to a depth of the scene that it may have elided.
That said, the inclusion of a few more of those less-familiar names might have been welcome. Many of the nineteen “new” poets will be quite familiar to many: Philip Whalen, Diane Di Prima (who never actually lived in Bolinas), Anne Waldman. The “rules” for who’s in and who’s out are a bit hazy. These are all, of course, tremendous poets, and most of the poems selected to represent them at least feel like they were written in Bolinas. See the “accurately stoned American time” of Whalen’s erudite, funny “Duerden’s Garage, Stinson Beach.” But I wonder, for example, why Robert Grenier wasn’t included—or Richard Duerden, for that matter? Grenier in particular, a great and somewhat under-recognized poet, (also editor, caretaker, and great friend of Larry Eigner), lived in Bolinas for many years. Scores of his poems capture the feeling of life in Bolinas, and would’ve been a great fit for this reissued edition. It seems like a bit of a missed opportunity not to introduce readers to his work, or, for that matter, Franco Beltrametti, Tom Vietch, or Donald Guravich.
But this is a relatively minor quibble. One of the things that interests me most about the poems in On the Mesa is to see the way East Coast poets catch the grand and subtle differences which greet them in their change of scene. This may be because I’m an East Coast transplant, having moved to the Bay Area just over twenty years ago from Vermont. The differences—cultural, botanical, weather-wise, etc.—still amaze me on a weekly basis. Some terrific poems in this fiftieth anniversary edition of On the Mesa provide great kicks in this regard: Ted Berrigan’s previously unpublished “Things to do in Bolinas” is a vintage piece of cool ambivalence. And Jim Carroll’s “The Distances” beautifully registers, through a haze, the bigness and blueness of West Coast sky and sea.
Also immediately worth the price of admission are several fugitive collaborative gems: “Grain” by Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, and Tom Clark, is hilarious, and its off-hand erudition shines even through the huge clouds of dope smoke that still seem to be swirling around it. “Bolinas Eyewash,” made by Berrigan and Clark, here excerpted from an apparently book-length collaboration, practically caricatures the degree to which Berrigan was completely over the Bolinas scene, homesick for the streets of the Lower East Side. Also previously unpublished is a short suite of poems by Alice Notley for Phoebe MacAdams, in which she has brainy good fun sending up the voices of some of the male poets by whom she was surrounded. Poems included in the original 1971 edition by Joanne Kyger are tremendous, as is Creeley’s (“Bolinas and Me…”). Bill Berkson’s poems, also included in the original, are a delight, as ever. Read his hilarious, characteristically witty and insightful, posthumously published memoir “in pieces” Since When for more insight into some of his neighbors in Bolinas, and you’ll get a much fuller sense of how much Berkson’s presence there gave it a direct line to the New York art world (and to John Cage, and Schuyler and Ashbery, and on and on). Berkson bridged many vibrant scenes, and he lived several lives in Bolinas after this one. His life there was central to its own cultural, and later political, lives.
It’s a pleasure to see poems from Jim Brodey’s now out-of-print Blues of the Egyptian Kings included in the reissue. Another new inclusion is a terrific selection from Joe Brainard’s Journal (also excerpted in the Library of America’s Brainard volume), which dates from his arrival in Bolinas and records his very personal, candidly lyrical and compressed initial impressions of the scene. Song Cave is republishing the entirety of Brainard’s long out of print Journal concurrently with the publication of this new edition of On the Mesa, and reading this tremendous snippet from it certainly whetted my appetite for more. Phoebe MacAdams’ poems were also a great surprise—drawn from a now out of print Tomboctou volume I’ve never seen—fresh and strange prose poems. In “Bolinas Journal,” she notes, “Peas staked. Weeds pulled around the spinach and lettuce,” and “there are battles raging about town. Someone brushes up against me, dressed in full battle regalia.”
Many of the poems anthologized here are concerned with the practicalities of getting by in a rural setting—of home building and owning, with their attendant necessities of upkeep and repair; of domestic life, marriage and child raising; and of the ordinary exigencies of lives lived very far outside the academy, outside of the city, and more or less entirely outside of society as such. It’s striking, reading through them, how much the currents seem to have shifted over the past fifty years: these days most young poets seem to be rushing the opposite way—toward the academy, cities, and the markers of what can still absolutely be called the culture industry. Always worth returning to for this perspective are the poems, included in the 1971 edition, of John Thorpe and Larry Kearney—two poets, not incidentally, who take the avocation of writing poems to be an integral, and more or less sacred, part of living well, rather than as a pursuit to be instrumentalized into a career.
Duncan McNaughton’s “Elegy” is a casually devastating masterpiece, and would serve as useful a point of entry as any into the work of this great and under-heralded poet. McNaughton’s knowledge is vast, and I use that word in the sense he gives it: what love makes one capable of learning, of fathoming. He wears this knowledge pretty lightly, though—his poems incorporate a life of cross-cultural, cross-temporal reading alongside the fleeting events, remarkable and otherwise, of present life. Myth comes to reside in the real time of the poems, and thereby to illuminate the everyday world. He and his family still own a house in Bolinas, and the place is called up in an offhand and occasional way—causally and lovingly, with a local’s voice and careful attention. Regional and seasonal change is registered in real time, neighbors are immediately familiar. Perhaps the greatest merit of this reissued edition of On the Mesa is that readers who pick it up out of an interest in (for example) Berrigan or Carroll, may come away with an appreciation for the work of poets like McNaughton. After reading a poem as strong as “Elegy,” they then may search out Sumeriana or Shit on My Shoes, the volumes from which the poems herein here were drawn.
In “Dreaming As One,” Opstedal quotes McNaughton as saying, “There was never a school or shared attitude. We were, many of us, living together, and that makes some deeper human sympathies possible. There was no agreement at all, except the one of permission. That is a very subtle matter and asks thoughtful inspection.” The fog rolls back, fifty years later, to give a more lasting glimpse of a very particular spot of time: a heap of wet flowers, nasturtiums climbing a peeling fence, covered in moss. A company of voices, still conversing in the sea salt air.
Jason Morris was born and raised in Vermont. He is the author of Low Life (Bird & Beckett Books, 2021), Different Darknesses (FMSBW, 2019), and Levon Helm (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018), as well as five other books of poems and other writing. He lives in San Francisco.