Ken Bolton: A Poem for Philip Whalen

  Ken Bolton

 2/12/08 — A Poem for Philip Whalen

(dated 2 December, 2008)

Philip Whalen as a young man, practising calligraphy, a big thing at Reed College in Portland Oregon where he lived.

“Here it comes again, imagination of myself”
Philip Whalen, ‘International Date Line, Monday /
Monday 27:IX:67’ (dated 27 September, 1967)

Cover image of “Lonnie’s Lament”, poems by Ken Bolton.

This poem is the first in the book Lonnie’s Lament, poems by Ken Bolton. This poem, for Philip Whalen, first appeared in Jacket2.


Here it comes again, imagination of myself:

I sit, in the harsh light, in a study


It’s the light I like,

& it’s late.

“In a study” always suggests “He was in

a bad mood, tense with it” — not that —

reading Whalen, a book of drawings by Kirchner,

the Berlin Street Scenes — in an attempt

to gain some purchase, kick off

from something different — thinking

Ernst Kirchner, Self-Portrait as a Soldier; Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (German, Aschaffenburg 1880 – 1938 Davos)
Self-Portrait as a Soldier, 1915
Signed lower right: E. L. Kirchner
Oil on canvas
27 1/4 x 24 in. (69 x 61 cm)
Charles F. Olney Fund, 1950
AMAM 1950.29 – See more at:

of Yuri, a bit, Cath’s eldest son, the one

I know least but like & like his difficult life

& how he’s dealt with it. “Yuri — I will speak

with you later!” My friends the poets, famous,

in their way — in the not very satisfying way available

to them (some) — large in my mind at any rate —

& another, rather foolish, at the same time as

rather good — well, alternately, from poem to poem —

something of a comeback. Another friend, ill

seriously mortally time running out. How quickly? How

quickly for all of us, the question. (‘A’ question.) Anna, &

boyfriend Chris, on their anger at / fascination with

The Howard Years documentary a

self-serving account but, as they say, so far

the major & lone political fact of their lives

It will be their early history: yech — Reith,

Howard himself (whom I never expected

in the 80s I would have to hate — what future

did he have?). The rest.

‘Consigned’ now ‘to oblivion’ — to echo & re-echo

in succeeding waves

of revision, counter-construal,

like analyses of the Third Republic, the French

Second Empire. Where are we now? Even ‘interesting times’

seem to follow a pattern — the bangs & whimpers

louder, more ironically conventional for their

inadequacy to the occasion. Will America go under

because of Bush? how appropriate

But was that my point? Late at night,

not even worrying. Whalen … the Kirchner drawings.

Go under? What,

next week?

Okay, then.

“It may never happen!” Isn’t that the joke?

If it takes ten years, if it takes twenty,

it will be cataclysmic. Tho — (20 years) —

I might be out of the way — or less concerned by then.

If curious as to the outcomes. For

twenty years — for thirty — amused

— “amused at best” —

by Whalen’s politics — when I thought of them —

the raves & rants, observations,

of a hippy dropout. Well, a Beat

the one I like best. What did Whalen change?

He was sane, he set an example. Now,

as I read the poems, I find those same politics

both nostalgic & to the point.

What will I change —

if I put my crazy-arse shoulder to the wheel?

Is the answer: “In this vassal state?”


“You should have thought of this earlier”?

Leave a record, like Whalen did,

of clear perceptions. The avowedly

political — Naomi Klein, Tony Negri — seem no

nearer the mark, tho fun to think about, think

with. Negri, so systematic, abstract, & wishful.

(The ‘Multitude’ — what a category! How do I join, ha ha.)

The overweening confidence & blindness of

think-tank America: the End of History.?

Self-deluded — & the rest of the world knew.

(Cheney, Rumsfeld, the others — Pal,

we make history!)

A century

of Interesting Times. More. Beginning when?

1871? 1789?

The innocence, & the percipience,

of my artistic heroes seems so touching,

even their blindness. Manet O’Hara Coltrane

— loons like de Chirico, the Germans, Kirchner

Kokoschka, Adorno — Christa Wolf. Did they each sit up,

as I do, in bed — a sleeping other at their side —

writing, nodding off… ?

The fan is going & blows my page occasionally,

though I have weighted it now with Heavy Breathing,

Whalen’s orange-covered volume,

Heavy Breathing: Poems, 1967-1980, by Philip Whalen. Hardcover, 207 pages. Published June 1st 1980 by Four Seasons Foundation.

with its wonderful drawing … that is too smart

to date much, really. Then one day it will date

suddenly — the ironies, the humour, the seriousness

will cease to register — a fallen, a trashed

civilization. I hope not. Tho Whalen of course

could live with it. Less tied to this world than me.

I like life. I like ‘the continuing story’, anyway,

& will be unhappy about it, the rupture. Will

the rest of my life prepare me? (“Check the serenity!”

Ha ha ha. Dreaming?)

My body, turning, in some future.

L to R: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Lew Welch, early in their careers.

Now I read this 24 hours later, & rub Cath’s

beautiful shoulder. If I “love life”

why haven’t I had one — like Whalen did?

Tho I must’ve — mine’s all GONE, right?

In fact I don’t know much about what Whalen did.

I seem to have spent mine day-dreaming — or thinking ‘hard’

about music, blues & jazz, & art — & making jokes & quipping

& making poems out of it. The women

I’ve hung around have kept me sane. (A few were

‘nuts’ — but I was nuttier.)

People just want to be happy? The big,

noble notions

exist, it sometimes seems, as ‘a caution’, to ‘ennoble’


with their ‘perspectives’. Rembrandt, for example,

those terrific self-portraits — pathos, self-knowledge … the rest.

Dignity & failure — etcetera. Yes,

but let fifteen minutes pass,

& he’s having a banana.

Or is that me?

A rollmop, then.

Ernest Kirchner, Three Dancers, etching, circa 1910.

Cath reads an old favourite, laughs occasionally,

reads me bits. The fan churns,

noisily. Tho we don’t notice. The night cooling

after a day of 42 & another of 37. Cool tomorrow,

at 27? 24? A small list of things-to-do builds.

My first week back at work.

Write to Sal, draw my hand

or wrist-&-watch, stuff to edit, CDs to copy

for Michael. I recommend to him

Floyd Jones: ‘Tore Your Playhouse Down’

how the song rolls so casually — solid, unfussed

the solos played on top of each other

a wonderful cacophony (Fred Below, Otis …)

The drawing — for Nick — illustration to something

he’ll print. Sal — after 20 years — to be

evicted from her flat. A view I love. She must, too.

‘Sydney’. Sydney as an idea. Slessor, Cossington-

Smith. Not that I care much about them: it is

Sal’s harbour view suggests them.

At last someone wants to charge real rent.

(The old owners must have died? — or sold up?)

Ernst Kirchner, Marcella, 1910-1920.

It will be weird if she moves somewhere I don’t know.

West, I guess.

                            A week later I have edited things,

Photocopied my arm — preparatory to drawing —

these are the easy things. Not written to Sal.

Tho what’s to say? You have to say something of course.

Very likely she is ready for change. Regretting

the view she will lose — but impatient with the place

now the move is on. She was always something

of a Futurist. One pictures her beautiful, goggled head

hunched forward to the sights of a WWI Fokker,

or leaning low & forward on a 1930s motorbike. Laurie jokes

that I should send the T-shirts to Les Murray,

they are so big. On different sides of the planet

we smile at the idea of Les — wearing the Brainard

T-shirt, a graphic proclaiming a reading. For Ted Berrigan,

for Joe Brainard & Anne Waldman. (“Oh, boy!”

says Nancy on one, “a Poetry Reading!”) Laurie’s

new book is out. Fingers bent,

curled over, relaxed, I draw my left hand, held

palm upward, & the wrist. My plan is to get it right

then copy it quickly with a firmer pen

& add the watch-band. Nick requires an image

— with which to feature a particular

bright red — & a poem, against which the drawing will be

set. (A poem I wrote years ago —

that Nick found & likes. I like it, too,

so why not?) Weeks have gone past. Unchanged, the world

continues — tho shifts occur, indeterminate. The

one stability is a US stalled, awaiting the appointment

of the next incumbent. Moves will begin

when he is sworn in — the slide, the counter-measures,

the moves of Russia, India, China, Europe.

Though it’s been non-stop ‘interesting times’,

most of it, in my life, has been going on elsewhere,

a pointy end far from here. For me,

no military service, no economic disaster.

My luck runs out?

‘Blues For The Girls’, ‘All Blues’, ‘Mary’s Blues’ —

names I consider

for a new book, ‘Mary’ being Mary Christie —

but it’s also an early Coltrane tune — & really

I would like it dedicated to Cath & Anna, the women

in my real life. Mary,

an old friend — in India now — in Japan for

the last seven years. More. I lived in her house

in Westbury Street. The Westbury Street Poems

once a title I hoped to publish.

I’m sitting here in Cork — the bar, not the town.

(Write to my Irish friends.) Joyce, or Joyce’s father, was

pleased to have

a painting of Cork, painted on cork, apparently.

Amused, I guess, at the finality & nominal closure
of the pun:

What’s that? ‘Cork.’

I find most puns shit boring, but still more so

the declaredly learned — discoursing

on their own ‘delight’ in them,

as if puns were naughty, & daring, & confirmed

their membership of some club — a kind of unofficial

High Culture Mensa. By the same token, I hate intellectuals

going on about Sport.

Why am I talking of this?

I don’t know.

So, here I sit in Cork, time running out, luck running out —

thinking about titles — tho I can’t make up my mind, &

writing them down means I can forget again for a while —

& think about art criticism — write some at any rate.

That is what someone wants me to do. And I’m ‘on to it’ —

I tell them. (I’ve done the drawing, meanwhile, & sent it off —

my wrist & hand — looking not too deformed — tho not

resembling exactly mine — which could be really satisfying.

Like ‘Cork’. My own hand by my own hand. Is that it?)

The letter to Sal is written, posted. I think it felt

too weird — shifty, dishonorable — to write here about

maybe writing — & then not get it done. I tell her

about my picture of her as a Futurist. The

close-helmeted figure, in goggles — coming from

a Lina Wertmuller film — tho which one? In it

the joke Fascist — lantern-jawed — dumb machismo type —

speeds about, aerodynamic —

acting out his picture of himself as he does.

Tho who am I to talk? (Not exactly lantern-jawed,

not exactly machismo — tho — like a Fascist — seemingly

a little down on intellectuals: When I hear the word “pun”

I reach for my revolver! Yike!)

Mimi The Metal-Worker.

My father’s war — the second, ‘world’ war — was an odd one —

significant in his life — along the Some Came Running lines:

he was young, free (single, at least), he joined up

not to fight so much as to travel —

waiting for call-up would mean permanent duties

in Australia, & call-up seemed inevitable. My father

joined, hoping to see the world. He would have, too —

except he & his friend proved such a combination

on the 25 pounder the generals kept them home,

for permanent display. (See that tree on that hill,

says one general to another. I have a pair here

who can take it out first shot! Bolton! Nicholls! Load up!)

(Or so I imagine.)

Dad was stuck here

as his regiment — regiments — would ship out …

to New Guinea, Africa, the Middle East. My father

took increasingly long vacations AWOL & was

regularly punished. Why did you do this, Private Bolton?

Because I could. I see. From that period of his life,

a kind of paradisal time of boredom, fun, cameraderie,

he had endless stories, that I heard endless times

& can remember & would like to hear again,

hear my father tell them. Tho he’s gone. Time

having run out. (Me, my

watch, & I.)

Cath will show up soon, any minute, & we’ll

cross the street & shop in the markets, buying

fruit & vegetables, bread — for the weekend & the Monday,

which is Australia Day & a public holiday.

(Public Holidays, unfortunately,

mean nothing to me — as I don’t work Mondays

& nobody cares about Australia Day — this is Australia!

Altho, increasingly, people seem to. Well, count me out.)

Whoa! Close call. The girl taking coffee outside

is nearly collected by a young guy on a skateboard going by.

Luckily she pauses on the doorstep just in time.

Cath’s arrived. (Sal,

I was going to say, liked my father,

& his stories.) My time

would have been different — Vietnam.

(Which I am grateful to have missed. Demonstrating against it

was bad enough — the real thing would have been awful.

My father told me — I remember — not to go if I was called up:

‘Disappear,’ he said.

                                                              But it didn’t eventuate.

It did for others.)

                                       Australia Day,

at Margaret & Crab’s. We sit out on their

verandah, in the dusk & then the dark, talking,

catching up, watching the street lights & moonlight

thru the leaves, listening to parties up & down,

watching young people visit. The dog, Molly,

excited & attentive, yapping occasionally,

at other times absorbed, silent.

It’s hot, tho cool by now. Marg’s hair,

cut shorter than usual — like a Cleopatra cut

but abbreviated, sharp. It resembles the haircuts of the girls

in Kirchner’s & Heckel’s paintings — & Schmidt-Rottluff’s —

so severe & modern.

These models were the women Kirchner hung about with.

Girlfriends. I saw a photo of one recently — Nina Hardt — & was

Amazed at how modern the haircut seemed

Severe & sure, ‘Bauhaus’: the woman looked independent

& unfaked. Though this was before WWI — before

the Bauhaus, the Tingle-Tangle Girls, Dada.

Dancer Nina Hardt, at Kirchner’s flat, 1921. Photo by Ernst Kirchner.

It is a shock to see in the photo the real life

the painting depicted — suddenly actual,

a moment — not bent to a purpose.

Some of the Berlin scenes are pretty good.

But it’s the scenes of bathing at the lake I like

& cabaret girls dancing — where Kirchner,

as well as being suckered by the women’s beauty,

depicts their friendship & humour: in the chorus line

there are always two shown in conversation.

Ernst Kirchner, Four Panama Dancers, 1910-11. North Carolina Museum of Art, bequest of W.R. Valentiner.

Crab points out the perfect sweetness & beauty,

& construction,

of a Little Walter solo behind Muddy.

Etta James is dead. I hadn’t realized.

Perfect in her own way, a few times. An

unhappy life.

                        She will be remembered longer than me.

Unless, in the library, in the Himalayas, in 2333,

some monk decides the poetry of Australia 300 years earlier

really was interesting — & allows himself a footnote.

“Ken Bolton answered phones in an art gallery, ran a bookshop,

& wrote poems of wistful humour.”

I see it in a small hand on an index card —

“a provincial poet in the era

of Late High Capitalism —

not much regarded,”

I have to laugh. What’s that great line

of Apollinaire’s,

about tossing your life off like a drink?

I finish my coffee up. (I expect

this looks like decision. Tho in fact it means

Time for work. I go there.)

Philip Whalen as an old Zen monk.

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