In his 27-year career as a poet and novelist, Richard Brautigan would write, in his spare, hallucinatory way, about trout fishing and abortions, men who go criminal after losing their bowling trophies, and monsters that get turned into blue diamonds. But in 1955, at the age of 21, Brautigan mused relentlessly, almost exclusively, about love. He wrote about its joys (”Igallopedlikeanenchanted horseinto love“); he fashioned brutal metaphors for its discontents (”Love is cruelerthan the knifeof a manwho slitthe throatsof four children“). He wrote melodramatic laments to love gone bad and quirky odes to desirable women (”A nightmare came to me . . . wearing a bikinibathing suit.Dig thatsexy horror!“). But even in love, Brautigan tempered his sentiments with self-mockery — he may have been young, but he was no love’s fool: Ever present in his yearnings is an awareness that the flutterings of the heart, while irresistible poet-fodder, make trivial stuff for the serious writer: ”Love is a white lambstanding in soft spring rain and eating baby grass,“ he opined in ”Love is . . .“ ”Love is a god-damn poet writing‘Love is . . .’“
This glimpse into Brautigan‘s beginnings comes from The Edna Webster Collection of Undiscovered Writings, a recently published sampling of the pages Brautigan left with the mother of his first girlfriend before ditching Eugene, Oregon, for the Beat life of San Francisco. Edna Webster waited 35 years before alerting rare-book collector James P. Musser to the manuscripts, which gave Brautigan’s work just enough time to settle into a cyclical rhythm of cultish rediscovery, and deserve the literary going-over a collection like this inspires. Grown-ups tend to forget him, but college students continually unearth the epigrammatic prose of In Watermelon Sugar and Trout Fishing in America and claim the author as their own — a dead poet cooler than Kerouac and less famous than Ginsberg who embodies both the absurdity and melancholy that defines life as one segues into adulthood. Trout Fishing has sold 3 million copies since its 1967 publication, and Brautigan‘s collected works are now available in trilogy from by Houghton Mifflin. The Edna Webster Collection arrived right on schedule.
These early poems reveal the young Brautigan-in-formation tinkering with metaphor and trying on styles — a Beat knockoff here, a stab at Hemingway there. But they also reveal that Brautigan’s peculiar comic collision of literary allusion, morbid drama and colloquial speech was already his own. He resorted to melodrama often, but rarely without a tinge of silliness: ”I cannot say to the one I love, ‘Besides being the world’s greatest unknown writer, I play a fair game of kick the can,‘“ he writes in a prose poem dedicated to Webster. ”I cannot say to the one I love, ’Want to go to a cave and eat some popcorn, or would you like to saddle up a couple of goldfish and swim to Alaska?‘ . . . Because Grace is full of embalming fluid.“ It’s hard to think of another poet, Beat or otherwise, who would have described such fantastical heartbreak and, within the same year, penned a nine-line paean to a beautiful woman‘s fart (”incongruity“).
Like so much work by young writers who later became famous, this collection sometimes reads exactly like what it is: writing practice. Subject matter sketched out here would resurface in more polished form: In ”maybe this is the way the world will end,“ for instance, a woman kills her husband with an ax because ”he made me so mad“; a decade later, in a single-paragraph story titled ”The Scarlatti Tilt“ included in Revenge of the Lawn, a woman shoots her boyfriend for playing the violin badly in a studio apartment. There is foreshadowing of Brautigan’s style here, too: A conscientious and determined poet, he played tirelessly at painting with words, numbering and labeling small poems as ”photographs,“ ”still lifes“ or ”family portraits.“ The imagery is often forced (”photograph 8: Eternitypicking itsteethwith the crossthat Jesuswas crucified on“), but occasionally he hit upon a giddily dreamlike, Dali-esque combination of the mundane and ridiculous, as in ”still life 1: A setof miniature falseteethsittingon the seatof a redtricycle,“ or ”photograph 6: A butterflytakinga shit.“ It‘s possible, here, to observe the inner workings of a young writer struggling to translate the visual and aural worlds into a written one without any trace of cliche or artifice. At the same time, Brautigan was figuring out how to elevate, in the tradition of Wallace Stevens, everyday observations to poetic heights:
I love cats.
Why do I love cats?
I don’t know exactly,
but I think it is for the same reason
that I love the dawn,
and the sunrise,
the coming down of rain. continued a
Brautigan‘s work became more varied and complex over the years, but it always centered on surreal renderings of ordinary things, and it always retained a wide-eyed bewilderment at both the beauty and sadness of life. He managed to break with his vignette style long enough to turn out whole narratives, including two endearing mysteries, Willard and His Bowling Trophies and The Hawkline Monster, shape-shifting dream stories of lovable outlaws. His most inspired lines, however, are the snippets of imagery and noise that grew out of his early experiments: semen collecting on a dead fish in Trout Fishing; a Hawkline monster that sounds like ”the combination of water being poured into a glass, a dog barking and the muttering of a drunk parrot.“ Brautigan cultivated an ability to invoke visions that would resonate with nothing but their own comic weirdness and confusion of senses: ”A seagull flew over us,“ he wrote in a vignette near the end of his 1964 novel A Confederate General From Big Sur, ”its voice running with the light, its voice passing historically through songs of gentle color. We closed our eyes and the bird’s shadow was in our ears.“
What fed his imagination is anyone‘s guess: Not even Brautigan’s close friends knew much about his childhood. In the introduction to The Edna Webster Collection, Keith Abbott, a fellow poet and Brautigan‘s friend for 19 years, claims that ”I never heard him refer to any Northwest people by name — not his sister, mother, father or stepfathers, not his girlfriends or teachers . . . All these were left without identification, existing as phantoms of a previous life.“ Abbott does recall Brautigan claiming to have met his father only twice, and he notes that references to Brautigan’s mother in his poetry are not kind. Brautigan‘s forgetting, Abbott recognized, was essential to his survival: ”His willpower, which was ferocious and constant (and which he probably considered his only true friend, along with his imagination), banished any memories in order for him to continue as an artist.“ That faith in the power of the mind to slay all dragons was probably the closest he ever came to a philosophy of life: The whimsical dramas of both Willard and The Hawkline Monster hinge not on tangible evils, but imaginings or perceptions of evil. Demons are demolished not by violence, but by acts of will. They prevail only because humans become resigned to let them.
This battle is, in many ways, typical of the one against mental illness, which Brautigan fought most of his life, and succumbed to at least twice. As a young man, according to Keith Abbott, he showed his poems to a girlfriend who criticized them, and got himself committed to the Oregon state asylum. (The Edna Webster Collection contains two prose pieces Brautigan wrote about his asylum stay, ”A Love Letter From State Insane Asylum“ and ”I Watched the World Glide Effortlessly Bye,“ which consists of 83 chapters of one line each.) Then, in 1984, after his literary career had risen to extraordinary heights and fallen — a natural course of events that might have seemed to him precipitous — Brautigan confined himself to his house in Bolinas, got drunk and shot himself with a .44-caliber revolver. He was 49, and he had ceased writing much about romance. His last book, So The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away, marked the first time in 10 novels, nine volumes of poetry and one collection of short stories that he broke through the safe carapace of amnesia to write about what his life was like in Oregon. Having given up on love, he was probably killed by the remembering.