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The Bohemian Edge

by Jack Foley

cityscapes: a quilt of poetry, A.D. Winans, Cold River Press, Pocket Book Series, Grass Valley, California, 2022, 74 pages, $12.00 paperback,

My poems and my life are one and the same.

While I never lived on the streets, I lived on the edge.

I'm not a prophet or a shaman, but more a caretaker who writes down what he has observed and lived.

I share Jack Spicer's philosophy that verse does not originate from within the poet's expressive will as a spontaneous gesture mediated by formal constraints, but is "a foreign agent, a parasite that invades the poet's language and expresses what it wants to say."
—A.D. Winans, San Francisco Poems

Fourmillante cité, cité pleine de rêves.…
[Swarming city, city full of dreams.…]
—Charles Baudelaire, "Les Sept Vieillards" ("The Seven Old Men")

THERE ARE THINGS A.D. WINANS doesn't do. He doesn't write sonnets, for instance. But you don't go to A.D. Winans for sonnets. You go to him for truth—or at least a side of the truth that isn't usually expressed in a poem.

I want to begin by quoting an entire poem from this octogenarian's recent collection, cityscapes: a quilt of poetry. I want to begin with that poem because it seems to me, within its own terms, both stunning and absolutely perfect. There is a lifetime in every line. To remove a single word would diminish the poem, and the poem demolishes the lie that suffering is good for art. What great opening lines; what a great development of those lines. The true poet, writes Winans, "lives on the edge / his eyes are his tongue / his tongue his strength":


when I was young and down and out

and wrote from pain and anger from

a studio apartment on the fringe of high crime

I was told by people of affluence who enjoyed

the company of writers

that it was good for me to be hungry

that this is what makes for great writing

that someday I'd look back on these days with fondness

at 65 I moved up to a one bedroom apartment

in a better part of town with photographs

of Josephine Baker, Billie Holiday, MLK

and the Kennedy brothers adorning my walls

to remind me of my life long commitment

in the fight for civil rights

I've managed to put away a few dollars

and my closets and refrigerator are near full

and I still have my old Royal typewriter

that in the early days had me knocking

at the door of success

a door that never quite fully opened

but whenever I think back on those days

it's not with great fondness although

I can't deny that the parties and women

were not fun and the typewriter rolled

off poems in great number

but the friends of affluence disappeared

like a magician's act

the truth is that the small studio

the lack of money

the roaches and the mice were more

a matter of circumstances than necessity

you can go forward or backward

but the smell of shit

is still the smell of shit

and I don't think I'll ever look back

on those days with fondness

any more than a depression era

stockbroker welcomed

the 1929 stock market crash

I remember, many years ago, reading a Winans poem in which he is trying to put the make on a woman at a party. The woman tells him that she has a venereal disease. He believes her and is pleased when a few moments later he sees her talking to another man, someone, he says, "who maybe she didn't tell." I remember thinking that the speaker was so self-involved that it didn't even occur to him that the woman was lying, simply making an excuse to get away from him. I remember feeling that, in this poem at least, the poet was extremely self-deluded. I didn't think that the poem was ironic, that we were meant to criticize the speaker. Like Charles Bukowski, Winans doesn't criticize his speakers, almost all of whom are stand-ins for the poet himself.

In "Down And Out," with a lifetime behind him, there is no such self-delusion, none of youth's egotism. There is only hard-won clarity: "the smell of shit / is still the smell of shit."

Like its excellent predecessor, San Francisco Poems, cityscapes: a quilt of poetry is a wonderful and satisfying book. Winans identifies as Bohemian rather than Beat, as did Kenneth Rexroth, a predecessor who might also be regarded as a quintessentially San Francisco poet. Winans, born in San Francisco and a resident of the city throughout most of his adult life, is able to give us the feel of the down and out, the left-behind, the feeling of what it means to live without a lot of money in a modern, roistering American city. Like Baudelaire, he is what the French call a flâneur: "an ambivalent figure of urban affluence and modernity, representing the ability to wander detached from society with no other purpose than to be an acute observer of industrialized, contemporary life" (Wikipedia). San Francisco is Winans' equivalent to Baudelaire's Paris, "colosse puissant" ("powerful colossus"). There are no rural retreats, no "hippy communes" for this man, only what he sees:

I have walked these streets

Like a cop walks his beat

My eyes taking in her every movement

My brain storing real and imagined

In eighty-five years

Her changes have not eluded me

But Winans is no neutral observer, nothing like Christopher Isherwood's "I am a camera." Poem after poem attests to the violence of his passions, to the "eruptions" his experiences arouse in him:

there is no rhyme or reason

to these thoughts that come to me…

the passion of a hurricane rips through me

like a lover trying to thread a needle

in the teeth of a hurricane

I seek refuge from the storm…

(from "One Final Love Poem")

Once addiction sets in

There is no stopping it

You attack the keyboard like a serial killer…

The city is your slaughterhouse…

You walk the streets like a hungry vampire

Lap up your own blood

On nights when blood transfusions

Are not enough

(from "City Poet")

One has the imagination of a sensitive, intelligent child who is constantly subjected to the shocks a modern city can render. At the same time, there is an immense sense of empathy at work in his mind, as the sensitive, suffering child he was—when his father didn't yell at him, his mother did—transfers itself to the figures he sees. One of his most memorable poems of empathy takes place not in San Francisco but in Panama:

the young Panamanian girl

sitting alongside her sister

dressed only in panties and bra

reading a comic book

and chewing on bubble gum

at a brothel called the Teenage Club

waiting on the first airmen to arrive

six girls lined-up like bowling pins

rooted to the long wooden bench

with zombie like stares

doing a woman's thing inside

a child's body

("Panama Memories")

This tough-tender Bohemian, this native San Franciscan is a marvelous tour guide not only to the "traps" of San Francisco but to the encounter of the spirit with a modern, industrialized metropolis, "Knowing there is no city like her in the world":

She is like a pair of empty shoes

Sitting under the bed

With no feet big enough to fill them

(from "San Francisco Streets")

Poetry breeds poetry. Reading cityscapes: a quilt of poetry gave me some lines of my own:

Bob Kaufman and Jack Micheline look down from heaven

glad Winans is still here giving us what for.

in time they will welcome him not with laurels

but with golden sardines

and heavenly rot-gut rivers of red wine.

Jack Foley is a poet, critic, and host of KPFA FM's "Cover to Cover" book show. His recent books are When Sleep Comes: Shillelagh Songs, poems, and the companion volumes, The Light of Evening, a brief autobiography, "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads", a biography of Foley's mind; and Jack Foley The True Litterateur, a tribute volume of Foley's poetry edited and illustrated by Shajil Anthru. Jack Foley is a Poetry Flash contributing editor. He lives in Oakland, California.

— posted JANUARY 2023

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