Man at Leisure
By Alexander Trocchi
Oneworld Classics, 2009
Falling into a lucid stupor
I dreamed . . . I was walking
(after a lightgreen rain)
hand in hand with a little girl
her breasts exposed to the moon
Outside the night tinkled a chromium cash register the little balls orderly in their slots —cats laughed, their pointed teeth the Sisters of Mercy.
“I came to pray for rain,” she said
Her eyes were green, deep green
At last we walked up the sky
along the Milky Way
round Orion’s studded belt
where flames of novas play
Who can penetrate his own midnight, I thought, as I swung my legs over the bunk and dropped to the wooden floor.
Alexander Trocchi was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1925. Awarded his M.A. in philosophy at Glasgow University in 1947, he received “a Second instead of the expected First” — according to the biographical information at the University of Washington in St. Louis where his papers are housed — “after he decamped to Campsie Fells with his girlfriend to start a pig farm.”
By the early 1950s he had made his way to Paris, co-founding the English-language literary magazine Merlin (financed by his new girlfriend Jane Lougee) which published work by Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller, and Jean-Paul Sartre among others. Merlin lasted only a few years, but was instrumental in publishing authors who had a hard time getting their work out in England and America due to obscenity laws.
After writing several pornographic novels for hire at Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press, Trocchi got his novel Cain’s Book published by Grove Press in 1960. The book chronicles the underworld of the heroin addict Joe Necchi, living on a barge in New York, moving about from dark squat to subway to all-night eatery — always on the prowl to cadge money for his next fix. The work, which became a best-seller, was clearly autobiographical. Trocchi had become addicted to heroin in his earliest Paris days and moving across the Atlantic, first to New York by way of Taos, New Mexico and later to Venice, California, did nothing to cure him.
On the contrary, Trocchi contended that drugs were a necessary part of his existence and artistic development, that without the experience there would have been no art. How else could he have pegged one of Necchi’s fellow dock workers so precisely: “his forearms, heavy like two cods, and tatooed from wrist to elbow. His broad teeth were stained the colour of a neglected urinal.” This Trocchian raw depiction of working life has influenced a younger generation of Scottish writers, most notably Irvine Welsh in Trainspotting.
Burroughs, William S. was there, large and imposing, hiding something behind his back. That great yellow gob, the moon, shouted up at his shanks from the wet streets: you’ve got my Trocchi! Give it here!
He couldn’t, he said: “These books are carefully concealed and surrounded by deadly snares. It is a dangerous expedition to find one of these books and bring back a few words.”
As he held my Trocchi aloft, I rushed him and wrestled his lanky bulk to the floor. Putting him in a vicious headlock, I looked into his jaundiced eye and demanded uncle. His breath stunk of gin and junk. He said he’d only give it up if I made his Jolly Bishop happy. “Hear! this is what I shall do to your body, I said,
I shall play it as
a loved instrument
in touching it at deeps
touch you, my love
and gratify yr shyest intimations
of a perfect sexuality
in concrete terms
absorb at you
in me, round you
with all of spring & grass
our bright and coloured panoply!
If in all of Trocchi’s work a central message can be gleaned, it is that play trumps work. Mind-liberating and -altering drugs are a necessary key for unlocking the gate to the playground. The laws created by an oppressive society — which values work more than play — prevent the person who attempts to be free from exercising a basic human right. Drug laws are draconian and hypocritical, forcing the transgressor to the dimly lit margins.
Similar to the psychology of the main character in Henry Miller’s Tropic books and Black Spring, Trocchi/Necchi embraces libertinism and anarchy with a big, loud “fuck you” to anyone who comes to judge. He wants his followers to come into his church naked for a massive be-in, he wants them to know that heaven is for the free and the lovers (as long as they are loving him) and, above all, he wants them to know that he is “not preaching moderation.
Trocchi walks among common men. He might be “murdered by his own contempt” for doing the things he does, but that won’t stop him from doing them.
If this commitment to the pursuit of pleasure proved disastrous to his personal relationships and family (he abandoned his first wife and daughters in Europe; he purportedly prostituted his young second wife in Las Vegas to support both their habits; his sons from his second marriage both died young and tragically) it was equally damaging to his literary output. By the 1960s he had become more of a countercultural media icon than a writer. By the 1970s he was operating rare book stalls in Kensington to support his habit and talking about starting work on his “Long Book.” By 1984 he was dead.
He smacked my head against the floor and fled. When I came around it was evening again, the temperature had fallen, and objects were growing together in the dim light of the cabin. Nothing looked familiar. I had no idea where I was.
— What the hell am I doing here?
I often ask myself that question. Though, at certain moments I find myself looking on my whole life as leading up to the present moment, the present being all I have to affirm. It’s somehow undignified to speak of the past or think of the future. I don’t seriously occupy myself with the question in the ‘here-and-now,’ lying on my bunk and, under the influence of Trocchi, inviolable.
All the same, I think back on my encounter with Burroughs: “I was as high as an ass’s turd!”
I begin reassessing my love affair with this Trocchi. Sure his highs could knock out yr teeth, they’re angelsalt in sips, atomic custard, starship textbook, bright, bright flesh fresh as flowers flesh, a thumbpress on a camembert cheese, but his lows were almost embarrassingly low
Where to begin
under what sun
Sexistential? heehaw, heehaw, heehaw! In Myrtle’s thighs my wet mouth cries. But now you see, it / doesn’t matter: / some are thin / others fatter.
and so, dear Su
I cannot lie
wld the junkie b
without his Xmas tree?
Man at Leisure, the entirety of Trocchi’s poetic oeuvre in print, was originally published in 1972, but only because his publisher, John Calder, broke into his flat to secure the manuscript. Calder justifies his act of criminality by claiming that Trocchi, “always in desperate need of money, had no scruples about selling the same manuscript to as many different publishers as would sign contracts.” How he justifies editing and in some cases revising and finishing Trocchi’s poems he doesn’t say.
Regardless, eighty-one pages of poems is all we have. They cover a period of a little over twenty years — from 1951 to 1972 — and as a result verge wildly in both style and temperament. A highly uneven collection, Man at Leisure ranges from the lyrical to the proselytical, the later poems employing a Creeleyesque shorthand orthography, a Roethke-like attention to children’s rhyming, a looseness and freedom, a push away from what he calls the “stinking cauldron/ of inhibition soup.
Happily the William S. Burroughs’ introduction “Alex Trocchi Cosmonaut of Inner Space” has been preserved. In it, Burroughs hails Trocchi’s courage, his unwillingness to “withdraw from the source of (his) writing” (Burroughs himself was on methadone for much of his life) his “rare vitality.”
It is this rare vitality that runs through Man at Leisure. A vitality that cannot be dismissed. We need Trocchi for what he says about permission (all is permitted) about forgiveness (anything can be excused) about anarchy and isolation (hypocritical bourgeois society is crap).
And so in the end we do excuse him for his meager output just as we do Rimbaud, we laugh with him, with laugh at him, we cringe, we wince, we sigh, we accept the peaks and valleys, the lofty sentiment mixed in with the gutter puke. And, if we do all that, we also forgive John Calder for breaking into his flat to give us this collection.
And how, stalking a butterfly or crunching sugar skulls, can anyone say that poetry is a wordy suppuration, or that Literature “whose pretension is categorical” is worth “bugger-all”? Or that love is a cosmic vibration….
I pick up the book and inject myself with a little more Trocchi just to be sure
a helio lance
in the hollow ingot
of (my) isolation
and all of a sudden I am laughing at death, a red dance / before our Virgin at Guadeloupe.
his world picture was
his word picture and
his vocabulary, obscene
When the spirit of play dies
there is only murder
When the flesh is hypocrite
there is only war
I climb back onto the bunk. I find myself squirting a thin stream of water from the eye-dropper through the number 26 needle into the air, cooking up another fix of Trocchi, prodding the hardened cotton in the bubbling spoon . . . just a small fix, I feel, would recreate the strewn ramparts of Jericho.
Ed McFadden is a writer living in Portland, Oregon.