Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus: A Biography

Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus: A Biography


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ISBN-13: 9780520234161
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/27/2012
Pages: 560
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Lisa Jarnot is a poet and independent scholar. She has taught at Brooklyn College and the Naropa
Institute and is the author of four books of poetry, including Ring of Fire and Night Scenes.

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Robert Duncan

The Ambassador from Venus a Biography

By Lisa Jarnot


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95194-5


The Antediluvian World

At dawn in Oakland in the cold of the year I was born, January 7th, with the sun before rising or just below the horizon in the false dawn and Saturn in his own house, in Capricorn. But that is according to the old astrological convention. Actually, the sun has advanced; the winter solstice has progresst to the sign of Sagittarius. I was born in the head of the archer. ROBERT DUNCAN, "A Sequence of Poems for H.D.'s Birthday"

HE WAS CASE NUMBER 27,436 at the Children's Home Society. Though he would later be known as Robert Symmes, and later still as Robert Duncan, at birth he was given the name Edward Howe Duncan in honor of his father, a railroad engineer on the Southern Pacific line. What evidence remains of the elder Edward Duncan is his careful rounded signature on his wife's interment papers in Oakland, California's Mountain View Cemetery, dated February 23, 1919. Marguerite Duncan hadn't intended to deliver her tenth child at home, but she had been ill, and a local hospital refused to admit her, fearing that she was infected with the Spanish influenza, which had reached epidemic proportions since its onset in spring 1918 and would kill nearly 20 million people worldwide by the winter of 1919. The 1919 flu strain killed pregnant women in unusually high numbers, but other factors probably contributed to Marguerite's death some hours after her son's birth on January 7. She was a small woman in her late thirties who had already given birth to nine children, two of whom had been stillborn. Though accounts of the morning vary, the home delivery was probably overseen by a Dr. Woods, aided by the older Duncan girls and one of Marguerite's nieces. Duncan's sister Anne conjured the scene some sixty years later: "I stood at the foot of my mother's bed and watched Robert being born. I was two years old, and I remember a great deal of blood and water. He was born at six o'clock in the morning and mother died, I think, at four o'clock the same afternoon."

The Duncans then lived at 2532 Twelfth Avenue, in the San Antonio neighborhood of Oakland, a landscape steeped in literary lore. During the 1880s, the young Gertrude Stein had lived here, where houses stood on lots once owned by Spanish rancher Luis Peralta. With a steep triangular roof that loomed above the properties on either side, 2532 Twelfth Avenue had been built during the first wave of the neighborhood's development. The residence had probably once been the main house of a dairy estate, and the property still included a flat-roofed barn. While the house was sizable by city standards, it likely provided cramped quarters for the nine Duncans. From the front porch, its tenants entered a high-ceilinged foyer with a stairwell and adjoining living room. Behind the living room was a dining room, and beside it, a narrow brick kitchen with a wood-burning stove. The second floor contained two bedrooms, the larger to the back and the smaller to the front. After Robert's birth, the house had to accommodate not only the Duncans but also a woman named Mae, who apparently consoled Edward Duncan after the loss of his wife and who brought two children of her own. The two oldest Duncan daughters, Edna and Marguerite, cared for their newborn brother, but before long, eighteen-year-old Edna fled the crowded household. Family legend held that the elder Edward Duncan "went into shock that lasted for months" after Marguerite died. Ultimately, he could no longer manage the children's care, and the entire Duncan brood was effectively orphaned by late 1919 or 1920. Duncan later heard pieces of the story from his adoptive parents: "For six months my father, the other Edward Howard Duncan, might have kept me and my two older sisters cared for me. But my father was poor, a common day-laborer. He could not afford it. Then, there must have been a period in a hospital, awaiting adoption."

Edward Duncan's tenuous relationship with his wife's family seemed to play a role in the abandonment as well. Marguerite's brother Wesley Carpenter and his wife, Myrtle, offered to take responsibility for the three youngest Duncan children. Welsey, a meter reader for the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, had the financial resources to take on his sister's children. With little explanation, Edward Duncan refused their offer. As one of Robert Duncan's biological sisters later explained to him, "All four of Momma's sisters had wanted to adopt any of us that Dad wasn't going to keep, so that we would not be separated. Dad's edict was that we were not to go to anyone that was a relative." Relations between the Carpenters and the Duncans had been uneasy from the beginning. Edward had married Marguerite in San Francisco on September 21, 1900, without the blessing of her family, which was perhaps protective of its youngest child.

Born in the spring of 1883 in Oakland, Marguerite Pearl Carpenter was nicknamed Daisy. Endowed with a mischievous grin and sharp gray eyes, she was the family gem. Her father, Lewis Carpenter, a native of Kentucky, and her mother, Isabelle McIntee, the daughter of Irish immigrants, passed on to Marguerite the distinct Anglo-Irish Carpenter characteristics that she would in turn pass on to her eight children. They were stocky people with unruly chestnut-brown hair and broad faces, proud to be part of a lineage dubbed by genealogists "the family of heroes." The first Carpenters to come to America—both named William—arrived in the colonies in the early seventeenth century. One landed in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1636; the other sailed into a Massachusetts harbor on the Bevis two years later. Robert Duncan was a descendant of the latter, though at various points in his autobiographical writings he claimed descent from both. The William Carpenter of Duncan's lineage was born in England in 1605 and arrived in America at the age of thirty-three with his wife, Abigal. He settled in Weymouth, where he served as a representative to Massachusetts's general court in Boston. His children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren eventually scattered throughout Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Missouri, and Kentucky, where, in 1833, Robert Duncan's maternal grandfather, Lewis Whipple Carpenter, was born to Whipple Carpenter and Elizabeth True. After the death of their mother in 1850, the teenaged Lewis and his brother Milton made their way west from Savannah, Missouri, to San Francisco. Lewis Carpenter, who later garnered a reputation as an eccentric naturalist, set off without horse or wagon, trekking across the Great Plains on foot.

Some years after Lewis Carpenter's arrival in San Francisco and his marriage to Isabelle McIntee, he and his family moved to a house on Ninth Avenue in East Oakland, just above the Lake Merritt district. Carpenter spent the next several years working at various trades and moving his family from neighborhood to neighborhood as the boundaries of Oakland expanded. He and Milton worked for several years in a broom-making factory. Later, he ran a dairy with his sons Lewis and Wesley, and still later he worked as a house painter. When he died in 1924 at ninety-one, he was buried next to his wife and their daughter Marguerite in Oakland's Mountain View Cemetery.


Native Son of the Golden West

The soul, my mother's sister, Aunt Fay, told me ... was like a swarm of bees, and, at night, certain entities of that swarm left the body-hive and went to feed in fields of helium—was it in the upper atmosphere of the Earth or in the fire-clouds of the Sun? The 'higher' ascended nightly, and in its absence, the 'lower' dreamed, flooding the mind with versions of the Underworld.


FAYETTA HARRIS PHILIP TURNED thirty-seven during the summer of 1919. On most days she could be found at Philip & Philip, the corner drugstore on Fruitvale Avenue in East Oakland that she managed alongside her husband, Bruce. Each morning she rose at dawn, pinned her red-brown hair into a bun, and made breakfast for her children, Mercedes and Harold, before opening the store. When the children were visiting their grandmother, Fayetta spent the early hours in her treasured library, pulling books from the shelves and composing lengthy pseudoscientific treatises, which she referred to as her "discoveries." With her mother's encouragement, Fayetta had been attending occult reading groups since she was a teenager, and by her early adult years, she was not only a member of one of Oakland's burgeoning hermetic brotherhoods, she was also a self-proclaimed expert on all matters metaphysical. Her authority, she told friends, was owed to her meticulous study of the phenomenon of light in the Egyptian pyramid of Giza during a previous incarnation. In her present human form—when she was not filling prescriptions, writing poems, and theorizing about the gaseous composition of the soul—she was searching for the key to light's great secrets.

Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood during the early 1900s was, in many ways, still a part of the American frontier. At Philip & Philip, customers stopped in to buy Fayetta Philip's special black-salve horse liniment, a cure-all for ailments from appendicitis to cancer. Farms, dairies, and logging settlements dotted the Oakland Hills, and downtown storefronts took on a carnival atmosphere, with gold rush pawnshops and saloons in restless cohabitation with dusty-curtained shops advertising palm readings by Egyptian gypsy clairvoyants and world-renowned spiritual mediums. The town's Anglo immigrants were progeny of pioneer families that had come from the northern territories of the Oregon Trail and from the east, across the Great Plains and through the Sierra Nevada:

This land, where I stand, was all legend
in my grandfather's time: cattle raiders,
animal tribes, priests, gold.
It was the West. Its vistas painters saw
in diffuse light, in melancholy,
in abysses left by glaciers as if they had been the sun
primordial carving empty enormities
out of the rock.

The Oakland Hills that Fayetta looked upon in 1919 had long ago been home to the Ohlone Indians, and much later, in 1775, European explorers had arrived and gradually handed over the land to cattle ranchers. The area known as Encinal to the Spanish became the city of Oakland in the early 1850s, when a young lawyer and real estate speculator from New York City, Horace Carpentier, purchased the land, established a charter, and became the city's first mayor. Since then, Oakland had expanded a great deal, attracting many refugees as well as transplants from neighboring San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, nearly doubling its population between 1900 and 1910. By 1919, downtown Oakland was a central hub of the Southern Pacific Railroad, providing connections to Los Angeles, New Orleans, Denver, and Portland.

Managing a drugstore during the First World War was a full-time activity for the Philip family. Fayetta spent long days assisting customers, unpacking stock in the backroom, and attending to her two children, who played in the enclosed yard behind the store. During lulls, she gossiped with customers and passersby, outtalking her listeners at every turn. Acquaintances described her as "a real character"—the lady pharmacist of Fruitvale who collected rocks and believed that Shakespeare's plays had been written by philosopher Francis Bacon. One of the first women to graduate from the University of California's pharmacy program, she had given up her aspirations to become a doctor like her sister Dee, instead studying English literature, geology, and physics. That summer in the aftermath of the First World War, the talk in the drugstore was about the soldiers coming home and the town's recovery from the deadly influenza epidemic of the previous winter. But a more peculiar topic dominated the conversation one August afternoon when Myrtle Carpenter walked into Philip & Philip and heard Fayetta telling a customer about her younger sister, Minnehaha, who was eager to adopt a child. An astrologer had told Minne and her husband, Edwin, both devout hermeticists, that their destiny was to adopt a boy born at dawn on January 7 that year, under an unusual alignment of the stars. Though Minne had secured a job at the local Children's Home Society of California and enlisted the help of the fraternal association of the Native Sons of the Golden West, she had not found this baby. Myrtle Carpenter excitedly chimed in that her sister-in-law, Marguerite Duncan, had given birth to a boy on January 7—around dawn, she thought—and died shortly thereafter. The baby was now up for adoption.

Robert Duncan came to know the story well. Before his birth, his adoptive parents, the Symmeses, had participated in a theosophical group in the Bay Area, a hermetic brotherhood modeled after late nineteenth-century occult groups such as London's Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society of New York and India. The Symmeses told Robert that he had been sent to them. His astrological chart indicated that he, in a past life, had been an inventor on the mythological continent of Atlantis. He was of the ancient generation that had recklessly destroyed its own world. Born under the sign of Capricorn, with the moon in Pisces, his ascendant was in Sagittarius, and the presence of Gemini in his sixth house suggested that he had acted as a messenger in a previous incarnation. According to hermetic doctrine, his mother had simply been the "vehicle" of his birth, an agent of his reincarnation; she had died so that he might be handed over to his rightful parents. The Symmeses had formulated their requirements for their adoptive child some time before 1919: the baby would be born at the time and place appointed by the astrologers, the natural mother would die shortly thereafter, and the child would be of Anglo-Saxon Protestant descent.


Excerpted from Robert Duncan by Lisa Jarnot. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Michael Davidson

Textual Notes

Part One
Childhood’s Retreat
1 The Antediluvian World
2 Native Son of the Golden West
3 The Architecture
4 A Part in the Fabulous
5 The Wasteland
6 The Fathering Dream

Part Two
Toward the Shaman
7 The Little Freshman Yes
8 A Company of Women
9 The Dance
10 From Romance to Ritual
11 Queen of the Whores
12 Enlisted
13 Marriage
14 Divorce

Part Three
The Enamord Mage
15 The End of the War
16 The Round Table
17 The First Poetry Festival
18 The VeBérénice Poem
Indian Tales
20 The Song of the Borderguard
21 The Way to Shadow Garden
22 The Workshop
23 Mallorca
24 Caesar’s Gate

Part Four
The Opening of the Field
25 The Meadow
26 New York
27 The San Francisco Scene
28 Olson, Whitehead, and the Magic Workshop
29 The Maidens
30 Elfmere
31 Night Scenes
32 H.D.
33 Go East
34 Apprehensions

Part Five
The Nasty Aesthetician
35 The Will
36 The Playhouse
37 The Political Machine
38 Knight Errant
39 The Vancouver Conference
40 Bending the Bow
41 A Night Song
42 Anger
43 The Berkeley Conference
44 The Sixties

Part Six
Domestic Scenes
45 The Household
46 The Summer of Love
47 Days of Rage
48 Ground-Work
49 Helter Skelter
50 Santa Cruz Propositions
51 The Torn Cloth
52 Despair in Being Tedious
53 The Cult of the Gods
54 Elm Park Road
55 Riverside
56 The Heart of Rime

Part Seven
57 An Alternate Life
58 Cambridge
59 The Avant-Garde
60 Adam, Eve, and Jahweh
61 San Francisco’s Burning
62 At Sea
63 The Cherubim
64 Alaska
65 Enthralled

Part Eight
The Master of Rime
66 New College
67 Five Songs
68 A Paris Visit
69 Bard
70 The Baptism of the Blood
71 Hekatombe
72 The Year of Duncan
73 The Circulation of the Blood
In the Dark



What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"A comprehensive, well-researched, and beautifully written biography. . . . Jarnot brings Duncan to life as a gay man and a brilliant poet engaged with the cultural and political issues of his time."—Publishers Weekly

"An edifying study of a poet who did much to inspire the next generation of poets, and it is an entertaining life story. This book should be looked to as a template for other biographies of twentieth-century poets."—Foreword

"A chronicle that should be utterly absorbing for anyone interested in twentieth-century American poetry."—Booklist

"Jarnot's biography offers an eloquent testament to an American poet trying to be responsible to the human spirit. . . . It will compel us all to reread Duncan's poetry—breathtaking as it is."—San Francisco Chronicle

"In organizing a mass of previously unavailable archive material, Jarnot's study will serve as an indispensable reference text—if not the first port of call—for anyone hoping to make headway through the metaphysical tangle of Duncan's oeuvre. . . . Readers of Jarnot's biography will find Duncan's life realized, at last, in all its fictive certainty."—Times Literary Supplement (Tls)

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