This definitive biography gives a brilliant account of the life and art of Robert Duncan (1919–1988), one of America’s great postwar poets. Lisa Jarnot takes us from Duncan’s birth in Oakland, California, through his childhood in an eccentrically Theosophist household, to his life in San Francisco as an openly gay man who became an inspirational figure for the many poets and painters who gathered around him. Weaving together quotations from Duncan’s notebooks and interviews with those who knew him, Jarnot vividly describes his life on the West Coast and in New York City and his encounters with luminaries such as Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, Paul Goodman, Michael McClure, H.D., William Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, and Charles Olson.
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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.
Read an Excerpt
The Ambassador from Venus a Biography
By Lisa Jarnot
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
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.CHAPTER 2
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.
ROBERT DUNCAN, The H.D. Book
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.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Michael Davidson Preface Acknowledgments Textual Notes Part OneChildhood’s Retreat1 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 TwoToward the Shaman7 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 ThreeThe Enamord Mage15 The End of the War 16 The Round Table 17 The First Poetry Festival 18 The VeBérénice Poem 19
Indian Tales 20 The Song of the Borderguard 21 The Way to Shadow Garden 22 The Workshop 23 Mallorca 24 Caesar’s Gate Part FourThe Opening of the Field25 The Meadow 26 New York
Interlude 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 FiveThe Nasty Aesthetician35 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 SixDomestic Scenes45 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 SevenTroubadour57 An Alternate Life 58 Cambridge 59 The Avant-Garde 60 Adam, Eve, and Jahweh 61 San Francisco’s Burning 62 At Sea63 The Cherubim 64 Alaska 65 Enthralled Part EightThe Master of Rime66 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 74
In the Dark Notes Bibliography
What People are Saying About This
"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 poetrybreathtaking as it is."San Francisco Chronicle
"In organizing a mass of previously unavailable archive material, Jarnot's study will serve as an indispensable reference textif not the first port of callfor 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)