Tuesday, 2 June 2009

francEyE



The first time I ever got up to read anywhere was at the Midnight Special Bookstore on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. The Friday night open mic there was legendary, but I didn’t know that.  All I knew when my name was called and I got up was nerves.  My lips shook as I read.
But there, in the very front row, nodding and smiling, was an old woman wearing glasses, with long grey hair pulled back and a beard.  Yes, most definitely a grey beard.  Chin hair.  She had gone up to read earlier and did some nature poems.  I generally hate nature poems, but I was drawn to listen to these and found in them what I would come to know as many of her best qualities as a poet, insight, humour, and connection to the spirit in everything.

francEyE was my first fan.  In fact, she was just about everyone’s first fan.  She could be seen at readings throughout Southern and Northern California smiling and nodding as readers took the mic.  She seemed to especially encourage new readers.  All I knew was that as long as she kept nodding and smiling, I was able to continue reading.

That was August 2002.  Midnight Special closed, moved, and closed again.  Over the years, I probably went to hundreds of readings that francEyE attended.  I’ve listened to hours and hours of her poetry, and she to mine, and us to others’.  There were drives to the Cobalt and Coffee Cartel, dinners, and poetry brunches, the camping gear she offered for my trip to Regionals at Big Sur. 

When I started my own venue, Down Home, in November 2006, I knew that I needed francEyE to be the first feature.  I made sure that she was available on that date, then I scheduled the two other must be there the first night poets – Manuel and George McDonald.  As people, these three couldn’t be more different, but as poets, though stylistically diverse, they had those same three qualities – insight, humour, and connection to the spirit in everything.  It meant a lot to me to have them all there, and to have francEyE on first. 

Long rides to poetry venues with francEyE meant stories.  Stories of those she loved, of poets past and future, of her courageous life.  She didn’t jump out of planes, or even metaphorical planes.  She just lived her life always and according to how she needed to live it.  Once she started on that path, she seemed never to have looked back, no matter how difficult it became.  She made severely unconventional choices as a woman.  She chronicled everything she did, no matter how harsh.  She exposed her own weaknesses and flaws.  She put regrets on paper without stinting on the details.  She wrote tirelessly, and spent her evenings listening and sharing. 

She was.  Well, those are the sad words of the day.  francEyE passed today.  At 87 years old.  I’d known her about 7 years, and come to know a woman strong, wise, weak, full of doubt, loving, creative, stalwart, passionate, activist, contrary.  A woman with a decidedly New England temperament and hippie spirit, who swore that her time in Brooklyn saved her.  Who would tell you, when necessary, not to do it like she had.  Who fought through bureaucracy to receive the health care she so desperately needed, and which she also, on occasion, fought.  Who last time I saw her, said she’d done it all wrong.  It was people, she said.  People she enjoyed.  She had spent too much time alone. 
I’m not sure how important that statement really was in the scheme of things.  She did love people.  And like many of us, needed to find this out by turning in the hand of people we were dealt by birth to find the true kindred souls and our real families.  She surrounded herself with a mix of family, friends, and poets who she loved very much.  I don’t know how much she would have really changed.  It was, after all the solitude and the writing that led her to most of her realizations.  When she stopped typing, on any given day, there was a reading of people, somewhere within a few miles, waiting eagerly to see her. 

In truth, I think what she was trying to do was cut down on the resistance she felt to the idea of people; not to the individuals she loved so much, not to the masses of people who suffered injustices she would fight as though they were her own battles, whether she was demonstrating for immigrants’ rights or exposing the shame of the situation in a poem.

On a trip to the Bay in 2007, I spent some time with her.  We went to visit Cody’s Books, which closed several months later.  I wrote the poem below when I heard that Cody's had closed;  I did not realize at the time, that it would also be the last time I saw francEyE.

Last visit to Cody’s

On my last visit to Cody’s
it was raining
I was with francEyE
we went from here to there, picking up holiday gifts
and things

At Cody’s I went off to find more cards
francEyE went off to find a book –
A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote—
which she had mentioned to me earlier
and which I hadn’t read

I pretended not to know that she was getting it for me
an early Christmas gift
I wandered Cody’s with just enough money to get into
a little trouble

This was the 4th Street Cody’s
the posh Cody’s
the one on Telegraph apparently
already gone

I wandered from shelf to shelf
I always loved this place. 

Alone, living up here
it had been one of my refuges
a place to get lost in people and words
to fill time
to feel compelled

Nothing else here felt compelling
not even
as I think of it
the relationship I was so valiantly
and constantly
trying to save

Now I am here with francEyE
almost a decade and lifetimes away
this is not the new Cody’s anymore;
in fact, it is the only Cody’s

I can overhear the gift-wrap lady talking with francEyE
as I look at cards
She is excited about francEyE being from Los Angeles
and asks if she knows famous people

This woman, fifty-ish, blonde, Bay area post-hippie
refugee this woman
in the heart of counter-culture
is enraptured by francEyE’s proximity to stardom

“I was in a movie once,”
says francEyE
“As an extra?” says the gift-wrap lady
“No…as myself”
(If you know Frances Dean, you know
she can only and ever be herself.)

francEyE explains it was a movie
about Bukowski
and the woman gushes at the name
like a hot lava pit
she is quizzing francEyE about Bukowski
about the movie
about Los Angeles

I am half-listening
the woman wraps the gift slowly

eventually,
after I have paid for
Sesame Street Christmas cards
Absurdistan
and
The Things They Carried
(books that change me)
I walk over to francEyE to see
if she is ready to go

I am sure she likes the attention
and equally sure she does not
She says she is ready
and the woman says,
“Is this her?  Is this her?”

And francEyE says,
“This is my friend.”
And the woman says,
“The daughter – is this Bukowski’s daughter?”

I say no, I am just a friend
and we have to leave

I want to go now

I think, at least, that Berkeley
such as it is
is generally far enough from the fame game
to consider trips here a respite

I think, that though francEyE is celebrated
in Los Angeles
she is not a celebrity
and while the attention is nice
it has begun to get ghoulish

and it is raining outside
and I so love the rain

francEyE and I walk to my car
in the Cody’s parking lot
such a pleasure it always had its own lot
on bustling 4th Street

But now it will not
it never did get comfy in its home here
never among the aficionados of the best coffees
and the best eco-friendly furniture
and the best shoes and sweaters and
saucissons

It somehow
as an institution
could not make the transition
from Telegraph to 4th Street
that its customers did
did not transition all the way from
hippie to boomer

and so
Cody’s is gone

But I have A Christmas Memory
one of the loveliest books I have read
with a note in francEyE’s hand
passed to me in the rain
opened in the car as water hit windshield

I still have francEyE as my friend,
not mother,
nor Bukowski as father

nor fame as any of our objects
only words as our subjects.

c. e. amato 2008


This is just an attempt to get through this day, without losing it to tears or grief, feelings of distance and absence.  An attempt to put down what is floating to the surface, to keep the connection alive through the thing we poets all share most viscerally:  words. 
francEyE, you will be missed.   Thank you for writing so diligently, daily, conscientiously, for sending so many words to us, for leaving your legacy and your story for us. 






2 comments:

SCSmith said...

This was lovely and lovingly written. I can understand why she was a fan. I am one of FrancEyE's daughters, not fathered by Bukowski, but also a friend. I find comfort in the words of those that spent time with my mother and enjoy the stories of her world of poetry. I get to know her a bit better throught the eyes of others. Thank you.

E. Amato said...

I don't think I ever saw this comment when you posted it - I'm so sorry to have missed it. Thank you so much for sharing here.