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Absent Friends: That is Not Sad; This is Not Funny

Thanks to online book sites, recommending hard-to-find or out-of-print authors is no longer quixotic or sadistic. Hence this feature, which will examine and recommend authors whose work has all but disappeared. There are vast treasures to be found beyond the bestseller lists. These essays are pieces of a map. — the editors

“I know what I am doing/ Has no worth.”

A Paul Hannigan notebook, his signature neatly vertical, dated “30 June ‘94” and “April 5 ’95,” is full of sketches: a drawing of two palm trees, one identified as “Ginsberg,” the other as “Corso”; a series of moiré patterns in colored pencil, with the note, “Philip Nolan’s telephone ringing and ringing”; a cat with an envelope—addressed, stamped, and cancelled—in place of its head. This is a poet’s notebook, yet there are just three poems, drafts I suppose, though there’s no evidence revision was planned, that these were not simply spontaneous jots, dead ends:

You have already
had enough fun
now you must
what watch watch
and listen and
remember. Sort
according to subject.
And cross-reference.
At your dwindling
so-called leisure.

Dwindling, yes. Paul Hannigan died in 2000.

That was the year I first encountered Hannigan’s poetry. Boredom, laziness, scholarly curiosity, I dunno, but one afternoon I methodically went through every book in the poetry section of a second-hand bookstore in Somerville, looking for gems, I guess, maybe books that Bill Knott had defaced (his own books, usually, with notes like, “Don’t read this book it’s shit,” scrawled with a Sharpie) or books from local, defunct presses, and that’s what I found, from Dolphin Editions in Cambridge, Massachusetts: Paul Hannigan’s Bringing Back Slavery.Seriously? Yes. A slim little book, priced in 1976 at $2.50, priced in 2000 at $1.50, a book potentially so offensive and evil I had to look inside, had to know what foul mind had slipped this Klan propaganda onto the shelves of a bookstore in my own neighborhood. And the reward for my prurience: poems, and every one a surprise.  

Look at the cover again. What appears only to be a hasty pen and ink drawing of grinning, white, founding-father types (powdered wigs, powdered Whigs, etc., etc.), all grinning because:

BRINGING BACK SLAVERY
I think we should have a parade for it.

But look more closely: the grinning-est of the lot isn’t wearing pants, he’s holding his flaccid penis and he’s urinating. He stands there, a grotesque surprise—like the poems themselves.

Laughing (1970), Hannigan’s first book, includes the poem “Dentist to the Slaves of Mr. J—,” written from the point of view of a dentist who marvels at the perfect teeth of Mr. J’s slaves:

Beauty, Sir, is too delicate
For homes. You find it, God’s
Surprise, in the cobwebby ways
Of accident and vagary. I found
It in mouth after mouth of
These wonderful folk you bought.

We can guess who Mr. J is and probably be right, and we begin to see that slavery was a preoccupation of Hannigan’s, appearing again as a subject in the chapbook Holland And The Netherlands (1970):

Amazing Grace Leash

I go where you go, always follow you
Like a link in the chain you broke

When you got away. But when you stop
When you cannot go one more step

I fly ahead of you and drag you on.
You wish you knew why. I wish I knew why.

And again in Hannigan’s second book, The Carnation (1972), from the prose poem “The Bush”:

The pinnacle of tribal wit was thought to be this simple trick: a tribesman would stand in a dusty village street and engage his peers in discussion of some philosophical or religious point; suddenly, before he had proved the point he had promised to prove, he would run from his listeners thus jerking his famished and exhausted slave back into the nightmare of his ebbing life…. When, as occasionally happened, a tribesman burst into tears at his own joke, his peers would roar in rebuke: That is not sad; this is not funny….

  A cruel joke: “I fly ahead of you and drag you on” and “run from his listeners thus jerking his famished and exhausted slave…”; slavery as a cruel joke, or: a cruel joke to the jokers, horrible to onlookers (us). The slavery Hannigan depicts produces no heroism, no grace, just disco and parades and, “…the slaver of the natural / slave who slavers behind it / wolfishly…”: the slavery Hannigan depicts only produces the degradation of all those touched by it.And this seems very accurate.A cruel joke, the cruel joke, cruel jokes—sometimes something simply impossible, sometimes more malevolent than that—are regular features in Hannigan’s poetry, often perpetrated through persistent dumbness, as in “A Theory of Learning,” the title poem in Hannigan’s first chapbook (1966): “The tenth parachute jump and / The fourth abortion are just / Preludes to a wide middle-age / for the slow learner.” Read the line break after “just,” transforming just from merely to judgment. From the dunce cap to the knee scrape to “we learn from our mistakes”: learning is cruel, especially when we remain so dumb in spite of so many harsh lessons. Perhaps we learn best when what we learn is coupled with pain. From “Study Aids”:

In learning a foreign language
Leave a read mark by each word
You look up in the dictionary

When you look up a word
And find a red mark by it
Cut off one joint of your finger
With the dullest possible knife

Although it’s just as likely that when our stumps heal we’ll forget why we cut off our fingers in the first place.

Perhaps that poem was written while Hannigan taught—for a short while during the 1970s—at Emerson College in Boston. Here we could interpret via biography: Hannigan’s chronic illnesses—serious and devastating, his favorite cat, his visits to Jamaica and his vague interest in reggae, the many friends who gradually let their friendships with Hannigan dissipate, because they found him to be too difficult or—just the opposite—totally lacking in ambition. But let’s not.

So, to the work. Consider the titles of his solo projects (two books, one of poems and one of drawings, were collaborations): A Theory of Learning, Laughing, Holland And The Netherlands, The Carnation, and Bringing Back Slavery—these are brilliant titles, mocking and ominous.

Eclectic: Laughing. And Laughing is strong, marred only by the occasional so-so poem, and even those offer wit and word play. Often in Laughing, notes are struck that later become chords, like slavery, or like his relationship with GREAT POETS, for instance. William Wordsworth cannot sit in the “monstrous chair” built by a child, while a more polite Emily Dickinson “might sit in it / For a second, just to be nice”—oh yes, “This ineptitude / Could move mountains. / Concentration of a murderer— / He doesn’t know what he’s doing”—that the child is Hannigan is likely (though just as likely not). John Milton falls apart, “Boom boom crash…” and “Oh, John Milton, it is possible to love you. / Even you, John Milton, even you.” Hannigan likes to invoke famous names:

PEOPLE, BE GOOD

was Ruskin’s first sermon,
Carlyle preached silence
In forty volumes.

Libraries creek and groan,
The beds where monsters
Are bred. This is the
Bela Bartok Memorial Shopping Center

And this is a whole tongue
Brown and green from the
Dirt and grass it licked and ate.

And here’s a sheep’s head.
Baa. And there, the Wolfgang
Amadeus Mozart Barbershop.

People, be good.
Just you try it.
How would you begin?

He isn’t just having fun with the great artists he names—or just making fun of the people who would name shopping centers after them—he is familiar with these folk, the way I’m familiar with, say, Paul Hannigan. I never met him, but his work is a part of my landscape, and, as a result, so is he, he is alive in that way, and so I might use his name just as I would the name of a friend.

Laughing is unique among his books for its moments of prettiness and calm, or at least, moments that are bittersweet: “The acrobat plays for the earth, / says the hero / I fall for myself alone.” That, from “Waking Winter Morning,” among the oldest poems in Laughing, along with two others taken—with little change—from A Theory of Learning.

The Carnation: a blue silver smooch proceeds the poems; a stem blooms big red lips on the back cover. Perhaps your edition won’t be so affectionate as mine, but The Carnation smacks of a wise-ass romance from the get-go and with the second poem, “Ode to Impotence,” Hannigan declares it so: “At last I touch / As gently as they dreamed / I would touch them in a dream.” But this book is eclectic like Laughing, with similar virtues and drawbacks—maybe a few more drawbacks. His longest poems appear in this book, and his only prose poems—the prose poems are real highlights. I’ve quoted from “The Bush”; this from “First Love,” in which Louis Armstrong’s mouth has become an obsession:

All their names are Louis Armstrong. The ups and downs of the waves are the cusps and grades and slants of his teeth in his mouth. I am too young to imagine his old body in detail but how could you be too young to love it. Old Rockingchair. We are all in his mouth in a wonderful way.

The mouth blossoms like a flower.

Holland And The Netherlands is as perfect as Bringing Back Slavery; these are the best of his books. Holland And The Netherlands is made up of just twelve poems, each six lines long. The poems are all blunt, delivered as if there was nothing funny at all about them, even though they are in fact quite funny—in the terrible way Hannigan’s poems so often are. Bringing Back Slavery is far bolder—obviously—but also for its formal experiments. Nothing super-radical—apparently Hannigan went to see Charles Olson and was unimpressed by Olson’s grasp of mathematics, and clearly Olson’s typographical experiments made little impression on Hannigan either—but Bringing Back Slavery does experiment with techniques to show disintegration or perhaps disinterest. Punctuation is aggressively inconsistent. Words are broken apart and left incomplete, as if for dead: “Once it is back it will enjoin us in its usual ways / we shall be able to talk si / talk no / talk perque / talk aqui / talk / larl”.

My hope is that there is a lot of Paul Hannigan poetry after Bringing Back Slavery, not just a poem here and there, peppered among his sketches. But no book of poems followed. After 1976, Hannigan began to disappear himself. The year after Bringing Back Slavery, he published, in collaboration with John Bataki and Stratis Haviaris, a book of drawings called Kiss. For a while he wrote book reviews (not like those forgettable reviews we glob with jam every Sunday; his review of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things begins: “Ho-hum Jesus Christ people are still putting out 200-page prose pieces and calling them novels”—he liked Sorrentino). Hannigan’s obscurity was all his own, self-unmade, left alone by his contemporaries. Chalk it up to lack of motivation, illness, pot, reggae, a fondness for cats… whatever.

Here is Paul Hannigan now: a few books, all worth reading, two bizarre and engrossing short stories, several broadsides, a lot of drawings and a lot of reviews, the photo I have in my office, those who knew him, and those who discover his work today.

Paul Hannigan: A Portfolio

WALT WHITMAN HOMOSEXUAL

Hi Walt Whitman
Hi Homosexual

you look not too good
it is impossible to look too good

how do you know that
I never said I thought it

why do you think it then
I never said I thought it

Then tell me why you said it
what

it is impossible to look too good
did I say that

I cannot imagine why I would say
a stupid thing like that

but I understand you lived alone
for a long time

that’s right
alone for a long time

(from Bringing Back Slavery)

FIESTA: ONE VERSE OF A BALLAD

Just as I was about to call your name
The phone rang
And since I was alone I knew it must
At last be you

I thought: the times are trying to change us
Into trees or grains of sand or waves in a flag
But all the blessings which flow from memories of you
Seem to represent the x in Mexico
Mention of which nowhere appears in the Holy Bible
Another inexplicable oversight on the part of God’s
Otherwise tireless writers
With wingspans of up to seventeen feet
And faces which caused the blood to run
So cold as to produce rime on the armor
Of certain holy knights

But parts of any magic occasionally fail
Occasionally fail it was not you
It was a disappointing surprise
A wrong number from Mexico City named Perez
Intent on reaching his sister Julia
Something about a disturbing telegram from her
Beginning Aiyee Querido Hermano
As Mexican telegrams are said to do

Like a tree reaching deeper
Every day into your absence
Which fills all by an insignificant corner
Of the known world
I hung up
After Perez and heard
A cry in the street
In the manner of ballads
A child’s blanket fell past my window
No one in it I knew
Caught my eye
The whole thing taking less than
A minute in my calm life

(from The Carnation)

A THEORY OF LEARNING

A bird never flew on one wing
A fool never fell on one mistake
The tenth parachute jump and
The fourth abortion are just
Preludes to a wide middle-age
For the slow learner. “It’s not
That we don’t understand,”
they say,
“It’s just our love of learning;
“We savor learning and the present.”

(from A Theory of Learning)

The information that I have assembled on Paul Hannigan I gathered from Caroline Banks, his widow. She granted me permission to include with this article a few of Paul Hannigan’s poems (above and beyond those used for illustration in my essay). Her greatest generosity has been with her time; for that I thank her. Others have been helpful, generous with time or resources or at least their goodwill: DeWitt Henry, Jay Boggis, William Corbett, and Fanny Howe.

All of the drawings are copyright 1995 by Paul Hannigan.

Adam Golaski is a regular contributor of critical essays to All Hallows. His essay “Remembering Charles L. Grant and Shadows” will appear in the upcoming issue of Supernatural Tales, and his reviews have appeared online at cutbankpoetry.blogspot.com and wordforword.info. His fiction and poetry have been published in a number of journals, including: Lit, American Letters & Commentary, Web Conjunctions, and McSweeney’s. He edits New Genre, a journal of science and horror fiction, and edits for Flim Forum, a press devoted to publishing experimental contemporary poetry. He teaches American literature at St. Joseph College in Hartford, CT.