A Renaissance for Michael Rumaker
Books by Leverett T. Smith, Jr., Michael Rumaker, and Megan Paslawski
There's a bit of a small, well-deserved, Renaissance for Michael Rumaker, student at Black Mountain College in the 1950s, gay celebrant, and author of semi-autobiographical novels and short stories, and memoirs. Aside from these volumes here mentioned, his classic work on Robert Duncan (who was his outside thesis advisor at Black Mountain) was published recently by City Lights in an expanded edition. Robert Duncan in San Francisco is a full and personal portrait of Duncan and other poets and artists in post-Howl pre-Stonewall San Francisco in the 1950s. Also, it's a contrasting study between Duncan's frank homosexuality and Rumaker's repressed struggle viewed in the context of the city's persecuted gay community. This expanded edition will include letters between the two young poets and a recent interview with Rumaker.
The extraordinary gold mine, Lost and Found, now in its third series from the CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, features extra-poetic work—notes, critical works, letters, and journals from the New American Poets and writers such as Di Prima, Spicer, Olson, Rukeyser, Baraka, Dorn, Creeley, O'Hara, Koch, and Whalen. This chapbook includes delightful and insightful cache of letters from Rumaker to Robert Creeley, Donald Allen, Joanne Kyger, Charles Olson, his lover at Black Mountain College Merrill Gillespie, with many references to Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan, and John Wieners and many others. We find Rumaker struggling with his sexuality and his writing, publishing his first works, experiencing mental collapse, and discovering the rejuvenating power of self-acceptance for his work and in his personal life. Rumaker has a way of making the marginal jubilant even in his worse moments, and writes with such polish that even his agonies are tenderly yet pointedly wrought.
These are the skills that have made him an iconic writer of twentieth century gay memoir and a brilliant philosopher of the imagination and its source in the excavated self—oftentimes through blistering and candid self-assessment and detailed, visceral descriptions of life and love in pre-AIDS urban settings (New York and San Francisco). Smith's critical work is the only substantial appraisal of Rumaker's importance, and is designed to secure Rumaker's place among his compatriots Ginsberg, Duncan, Wieners, Dorn, and Olson.
Rumaker engages the reader in a much more private daily way than in most of the writings of these others. His life is his book, and so, as in A Day and a Night at the Baths, the depicted visit to the Everard Baths, though presented somewhat as a fiction, has proven to be the most subjective and best document of the wild, sticky, and multiple orgasmed free-for-alls during the pre-AIDS heyday of gay sexual freedom. Rumaker cannot write his lyrical though gritty language without flights of poetic philosophy on the links between Eros, sexual freedom, the body, and poetry. Baths is one of the seminal classics of gay sexual literature, fusing prickly descriptions of sex with persuasive discourse on psychology and liberation.
Rumaker, in all of his works, refuses to dehumanize even the passing trick. His Whitmanesque democracy allows for each person to touch his inner being as well as his wet manly core as shown in this group sex scene: These faceless men surrounding me on the bed in the dorm, faces, bodies, anonymous, androgynous, were dexterous and insistent participants in the self completely subdued, impersonal; the will, the ego, falling away. To be subsumed in the will and drive of Eros, to be taken in its hands and taken down and down into the nameless, faceless, anonymous dark of the flesh; to be taken down to the grit and speck of beginnings in sperm-fire and shimmering alluring dancing womb-egg; to be taken down to the salt-smell of sweat and blood and flesh and the cloacal fungus smell of buried earth and waste—To know it is all a beauty of beginning, of the sane and healthy lust that makes us all, in the primal amoeba of our infinitesimal microscopic stirrings.
Ginsberg, for example, only reached this gay ecstatic maybe once, in his poem "Please Master." Baths is hip-thrusting stimulating, to be sure, but also lives up to Rumaker's stated intention, looking back in his preface to put the open sensuality in the novel in perspective, that is, pre-AIDS, when male-male sexuality was being liberated from its centuries-long subterranean hiddenness into a visibility, if only, in this instance, of the twilit and claustrophobic "freedom" of a bath house . . . To shape a language commensurate with that emerging openness . . . and cleansed of the language of the past . . . words of flesh-hatred and shame, language that shriveled body and spirit.
Smith's analysis of Rumaker's work takes a straightforward narrative arc, and like the best of this type of slightly academic approach, is clearly argued and richly documented. Smith knows Rumaker, and his book benefits from the close friendship and professional association. Together they ferret out the importance and continuum between the early short stories with their sociological insights into despairing characters, his shift to first person (and self-acceptance) with the gay memoir/novels of Baths and My First Satyrnalia, the personal memoir/novel Pagan Days (growing up), and memoirs Black Mountain Days and Robert Duncan in San Francisco. Smith is a close and admiring reader but his admiration emphasizes the necessity to fully see Rumaker's work in its struggle to become, its insistence on liberating literature and the body, and its many reading pleasures. The book closes with two revealing recent interviews with Rumaker.
You can read a review of an earlier edition of Black Mountain Days by Mark Roberts in Oyster Boy Review 19 and by me in The Independent Weekly. This new edition includes an index compiled by Leverette T. Smith.
Rumaker's complete works and Smith's critical volume belong on any literate gay person's shelf, but they also provide clear-eyed and inspiring lessons for a country now mired in growing hate and intolerance.