By: Stephen Schwartz
On March 7, the North American poet Philip Lamantia, the only successful English-language versifier in the French surrealist style to appear in this hemisphere, died of heart failure in San Francisco, his native city, at 77.
Lamantia was also a pioneer in the use of hallucinogenic drugs by intellectuals in the United States, and a significant figure in contemporary Catholic as well as pagan mysticism. He was a traveler among Mexican and other indigenous peoples, and a personal link between the “San Francisco Renaissance” led by Kenneth Rexroth—which so affected the young Octavio Paz, visiting Northern California at the end of the second world war–and the Beat Generation led by Allen Ginsberg, who died in 1997.
Lamantia was born on October 23, 1927, the son of a Sicilian vegetable merchant of anticlerical, leftist views, Nunzio Lamantia, and Mary Tarantino, who came from a prominent San Francisco immigrant family. He was raised in the genteel, petit bourgeois environment of the Excelsior District, a San Francisco neighborhood settled by upwardly-mobile Italian-Americans. He attended a public high school named for the explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa—a cultural item reflecting the “Spanish revival” ethos of California in the first half of the 20th century.[private]
At 15 years old, Lamantia was first published, in circumstances that were nothing less than extraordinary. He had begun writing poetry as a child, but his sensibility was utterly transformed by a visit to a show of surrealist paintings, including works of Dalí and Miró, at the San Francisco Museum of Art. He composed a series of works in the surrealist style and sent them to André Breton, then residing in New York and editing the annual periodical VVV. The latter journal had a doubly-punning name; it embodied a surrealist typographical joke by joining an Anglo-Saxon W with an extra V, but also expressed the sense of a triple “V for Victory,” derived from the popular slogan of the Allies in the war against the Axis. (Since the title was unpronounceable, it was usually rendered as Triple V.)
Lamantia’s work appeared in VVV with his photograph and correspondence, and he instantly became a legend. As revealed by his image, he was a charismatically beautiful youth. His father and others in the Italian-American community, however, were alarmed at his interest in surrealism, which in their bien-pensant, progressive manner they viewed as dangerous, and the parent called on an anti-Stalinist editor and another leftist from the Italian milieu—the same that had nurtured Tina Modotti a little more than a generation previously—to discourage the young poet from his experimental path. But they were destined to be disappointed, for Lamantia would become a symbol of California’s modernist literary revolution, which after being long delayed had finally begun its period of vitality. His first published writings were pure, classic surrealism:
I am following her to the wavering moon
to a bridge by the long waterfront
to valleys of beautiful arson
to flowers dead in a mirror of love
to men eating wild minutes from a clock…
The effect was as much oral as visual, for “the bridge by the long waterfront” is obviously the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, seen from the docks on which Lamantia worked as a produce handler for his father.
Lamantia wrote to Breton at that time, “To rebel! That is the immediate objective of poets!” He adopted the surrealist creed: “The ‘poetic marvelous’ and the unconscious are the true inspirers of rebels and poets.” In reality, he had been encouraged as much by Rexroth, who had broken with Muscovite Communism in the direction of anarchism, but in a pattern that was established early and was visible throughout his life, he took his distance from Rexroth. Rexroth, however, wrote generously of him, “I have never known anyone else who started out, without preliminaries, with no five-finger exercises or scales, as an achieved poet.”
Lamantia soon quit Balboa High School, having been invited by the Breton circle to New York, but there, as elsewhere, he found personal relations difficult. He encountered Tennessee Williams, among others, who wrote about him in his own memoirs; but he did not remain active in the “official” surrealist circle. Instead, he was welcomed into the rival milieu of quasisurrealists around the regular monthly magazine View. The latter included more commercial advertisements than VVV and published a very wide range of authors, including the ex-Stalinist Paul Bowles (who had gone to Mexico in the late 1930s with thousands of stickers printed with the words DEATH TO TROTSKY!). View, which named Lamantia to an undemanding editorial post, also printed interviews and correspondence with William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, in tandem with works by Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and numerous other surrealists close to Breton.
The main difference between VVV and View would not become clear until after the war, and has never been the subject of a proper commentary. The precious set around View hewed to a “traditional,” even reactionary figurative surrealism in the style of Dalí. By contrast, Breton and VVV, influenced by the Austrian painter and surrealist theoretician Wolfgang Paalen, who published the ultra-advanced review Dyn in México, as well as by the Chilean Roberto Matta Echaurren, anticipated the turn toward biomorphic painting and abstract expressionism. A paradox was present: Breton, the pope of surrealism, was the least orthodox in his approach to art.
I had heard Lamantia’s name literally since my earliest childhood, and I came to know him intimately, and to study poetics with him. Therefore, what I write here represents as much the product of personal conversations with him and observation as research.
Lamantia did not flourish in the presence of Breton; nor did he find another way to prosper in New York, and he returned to San Francisco, where he commenced writing in an anarchist and pacifist periodical, Circle. The “Renaissance” had begun in earnest in San Francisco and Berkeley, guided by Rexroth and including the poet Robert Duncan and, some time later, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, author of the short story on which the 1982 film Blade Runner was based, and whose influence on the world would exceed those of all the others mentioned here by very far. In 1946 Lamantia’s first volume appeared, under the title Erotic Poems, which was provocative but misleading; the book had no overt sexual content whatever. It was published by the surrealist poet and physicist Bernard Harden Porter, who amazingly enough had been employed in the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bombs; he was one of the leading experts in the world on the separation of radioactive elements.
Once again, however, Lamantia, as with Rexroth and Breton, grew alienated from Porter, for whom he conceived a lifelong resentment. But in the same year 1946 Lamantia inaugurated a new chapter in his own journey, and in the development of the North American literary sensibility, when he became the first “white” intellectual to participate in the peyote religion of the Nevada indigenous communities (specifically, the Washo). He had learned about peyote and the mysticism associated with it through the Circle group. For the next decade and a half Lamantia’s life would be defined by drug use, which would become a common element in his relationship with Allen Ginsberg, an emigrant to San Francisco, and the other members of the Beat movement. He was the most important influence in moving Ginsberg away from rather conventional poetry to radical experimentation.
In 1955, he participated with Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Michael McClure in a climactic poetry reading in San Francisco, with Rexroth as master of ceremonies. There Ginsberg introduced his oracular poem Howl, in which Lamantia appears as the epitome of “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” The event was described by Jack Kerouac in The Dharma Bums, published in 1958; there Lamantia, who had used the occasion to read manuscripts by his recently dead friend John Hoffman, is referred to as “Francis DaPavia.”
Beginning in New York in the 1940s, where he frequented the bebop jazz scene, Lamantia also used heroin, and by the late 1950s he was seriously addicted. His next book, Narcotica, did not appear until 1959, and had a cover with photographs of him injecting the drug into his veins. By that time he had gone to Mexico for his second great adventure with indigenous people, traveling to the Cora communities of the Sierra Madre Occidental, and staying in Jesus Maria de Nayarit. There he underwent a complete spiritual transformation, becoming a believing Catholic. He soon memorably wrote
There is this distance between me and what I see
everywhere immanence of the presence of God…
I long for the luminous darkness of God.
He had come a very long way from the militant anarchism and atheism of the Rexroth and Breton circles, although the former had written of the San Francisco Renaissance group that “one of the characteristics of all these new people was, to put it bluntly, mysticism.” Lamantia’s political orientation also changed, as he frequented Sheri Martinelli, the lover of Ezra Pound, to whom he dedicated a poem.
Unfortunately, Lamantia’s essential instability—only much later diagnosed as bipolar syndrome—vitiated the positive aspects of his turn to the Catholic faith. In the early 1960s he went to Europe where he made a riskier leap into paganism, embracing the Egyptian-inspired cult of R. A. Schwaller. This individual had assumed the aristocratic sobriquet “de Lubicz,” which he claimed, apparently falsely, was bestowed upon him by the Lithuanian and French poet O. V. de Lubicz Milosz, cousin of the lately deceased Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz. (Czeslaw Milosz had been brought to the San Francisco Bay Area with the encouragement of Rexroth, but Lamantia never encountered the Polish master.)
Schwaller’s cult was anti-Semitic and authoritarian in its origins, which Lamantia confessed to almost nobody. Lamantia never resolved the implications of his involvement with a fascist movement, associated with no less a figure than Rudolf Hess of the Thule Society! The poet’s close friend, André VandenBroeck, had come under the influence of Schwaller a decade before him, and married Lamantia’s former companion, the photographer Goldian Nesbit, a woman known as Gogo. VandenBroeck published a volume of memoirs in 1987, titled Al-Kemi, in which he confronted and accounted for the Judeophobic nature of the Schwaller phenomenon; it bore a prefatory comment by Saul Bellow.
In a tragic irony, Lamantia not only refused to acknowledge the import of his collapse into paganism and neofascism, but, in an apparent (but only apparent) contradiction, also became profoundly inveigled with the orthodox leftism that overtook the San Francisco literary scene. His refusal of candor about Schwaller and the Jews, far more than his turn to the Catholic church, represented a break with the tradition of Breton, who had always been friendly to Jews and one of whose most important theoretical texts on poetry, Signe ascendant (1947), begins with a citation from the Kabbalistic classic, the Zohar. When Lamantia published his definitive collected poems, under the title Bed of Sphinxes, in 1997, it included a gushing homage to Schwaller. In addition, although Breton was a leftist, he was never a conformist, while Lamantia was compelled by the San Francisco “progressives” to submit to their political dictates.
Lamantia overcame his addiction to heroin, but he could not, finally, contend with the contradictions of his life in San Francisco and the destiny that had befallen his city. By the end of the century the birthplace he loved so much was only a memory. He had changed profoundly, from a man described, after his death, by the poet Michael McClure as once having been “thrilling to be around. Everybody would sit around and listen to him all night. The flow of his imagination was a beautiful thing.” He became a despondent and disillusioned recluse.
Lamantia then experienced, at the depths of depression, a final religious illumination. In difficult circumstances, including a period of removal from normal society, he reaffirmed his belief in God, in Jesus, and in Saint Francis, for which his city was named. In 1998, I interviewed him for San Francisco Faith, a conservative Catholic monthly, in which he said, “God’s grace is everything,” and condemned the extreme radicalism of San Francisco. He further declared of Pope John Paul II, “Holy Father is superb,” describing him as “the greatest prose stylist among the Popes since Leo XIII.” He concluded, “my link with the Franciscans is forever.”
The interview caused a scandal in San Francisco, driving him further into isolation. Two of his last published poems appeared in 2001 in Communio, a Washington-based “international Catholic review.” One of them, “Seraphim City,” dated October 4, 2000, included an embittered reference to “the very unheavenly city named for Saint Francis,” which he described as follows:
Super-cool simulacra were standing around
I, wrapt by coat of invisible darkness
glide to embrace a whole cafe row
where postmodern unlovables ooze daylight nightmare
…those twenty-first century heads
of living death
Lamantia was long adulated by younger poets in San Francisco, but finally, in a caricature of the Bretonian manner, he had broken with almost all those close to him or who had helped him. Paul Nagy, a bookseller and expert on Islamic mysticism who managed to remain on good terms with him almost to the end, recalled Lamantia saying he enjoyed Nagy’s company because he “was not a poet or even a writer,” and therefore made no demands on him.
Wayne Andrews, a North American author who knew Breton better than did Lamantia and nearly all the other English-speaking acolytes of orthodox Surrealism on this side of the Atlantic, wrote that at the end of his life the French author said, “I am the most unhappy man on earth.” Lamantia died, like Paz, shunned as a figure who had become famous as a revolutionary associated with surrealism and ended as a conservative religious believer. He is survived by his wife, Nancy Peters, a literary editor he married in 1977. A funeral mass and several memorial readings have been scheduled in San Francisco.
Postscript: The surrealists loved coincidences, and Lamantia might have been heartened by the idea that his funeral would come while millions of Catholics prepared themselves for the death of Pope John Paul II, whom he grew to love. But in another synchronic event that Lamantia would surely have appreciated, his funeral on March 31 came at the commencement of the celebration of Su’umuavika, the holy week of the Cora Indians of western Mexico, the community he visited and under whose influence his first Catholic illumination occurred. As described in the Mexican daily La Jornada, “Jesús María del Nayar: On Saturday morning [April 2] Christ the Sun or Toakamuna was reborn. Hundreds of half-naked demons had destroyed themselves in the river, from which they had emerged early Thursday to steal the traditional and local powers and to kill this syncretic deity…. Also called Jews or ‘erased ones,’ the demons washed their bodies, which had been painted in multicolored designs, in the river. The intention is to disappear and return in their simple condition as humans.” The ceremony is known in Spanish as “Judea.” Ironies and mysteries proliferate….
Editor’s Note: An edited version of this article appeared April 3, 2005 in Spanish in the Mexico City daily, Reforma.