Jack Mueller: Still Solid in the Mystery
by Gerald Nicosia
Amor Fati: New and Selected Poems, by Jack Mueller, Lithic Press, 2013, Fruita, Colorado, 174 pages, $17.00 paperback, www.lithicpress.com.
THERE ARE POETS WHO SPEND their whole lives trying to be famous, and most of them never get there. Fame can involve talent, but most who make it benefit from good luck as well. Even Allen Ginsberg once admitted that the banning of Howl was a fortuitous step in his career, an unforeseeable stepping-stone to fame.
Then there are other poets who decide early on that they want to spend their lives making better poetry every day, and that the chase of fame will only get in their way, so they put it completely out of mind and instead work on figuring out ways to stay alive while they're making their poetry. Jack Mueller was the latter kind of poet; and in that regard, he was the most remarkable non-famous poet I've ever known.
Jack Mueller. Photo by Christopher Felver
I ran into Jack Mueller in North Beach in the late 1970s, shortly after I'd arrived on the scene from Chicago. Jack was tall, balding (which you rarely noticed because of his love for colorful and stylish hats), had owlish spectacles, and with his intense stare and pencil moustache had the air of a mad German scientist. The voice was deep and gravelly, and he paused a lot when he talked, often searching for just the right word. He loved to sit back and talk literature, philosophy, politics, or even women and love for hours on end. There was still an edge of the South in his voice; and a conversation with him—I had many at Vesuvio's—would usually involve hard liquor (his preference was bourbon) and not a few thoroughly savored cigarettes.
But I'm only touching the surface of this man. You couldn't talk with him long without discovering his sheer brilliance. He could quote Rilke and Blake, or give you a history of the ancient Indian psychotropic drug soma, as naturally and easily as another man could quote from his grocery list. He was also funny as hell, with a wry, ironic, often black sense of humor that relied heavily on life's endless paradoxes, as did much of his poetry.
Mueller was born in 1942 in Philadelphia, but grew up mainly in Kentucky. Jack's father was a professor of church history and theology, and Jack himself got a couple of degrees before joining the Peace Corps in the mid 1960s. He ended up in India, which proved more formative on him than any school. The vast human need there was something he never forgot. He often talked about the importance of people directing their work toward what he called "the commons and commonality." Although he never put a label on his politics (at least to me), it was clear that he felt government must respond to everyone's need, rich or poor; and he measured a government's success by the degree of inclusiveness in regard to those it sought to help and better. The vast landscape of India may have impressed him too, for he was a lover of nature and an eco-warrior all his life. Supposedly it was in India that he developed his passion for poetry as well. He once told me that India also relaxed the strict Baptist notions of sex he'd been brought up with.
Collectively, India certainly pushed him in a Beat direction, as it did other American writers, but when he got back to the States he landed in New Orleans for a while. His father was then teaching there, and all his life Jack loved sailing. He picked up some money teaching sailing, as well as working as a poet in the schools. But perhaps the most important result of his time in New Orleans was that he found his future wife, Judith Faust, there. In 1975 they moved to North Beach, and Jack was off and running with his literary career.
Photo by Gerald Nicosia.
Suddenly Jack had access to a host of real Beat writers, but he was also central to the group of post-Beat poets who were carrying the real energy of the scene, pushing the scene forward into a new era, people like Kush, Neeli Cherkovski, Kaye McDonough, Tisa Walden, Paul Landry, John Landry, Latif Harris, Ron Sauer, Joie Cook, David Moe, Allen Cohen, Alejandro Murguía, and so many others that I'm probably slighting hundreds by those I fail to name. There were two decades during which Jack burned brightly as one of the stars of hundreds of readings and small-press publications. He cofounded the National Poetry Association with older poet Herman Berlandt, organizing numerous major literary events, including an impressive National Poetry Week at Fort Mason, and he worked with Jack Hirschman to create the Union of Street Poets. His ethic was always inclusive—finding reasons to bring in more people, not to keep people out, as some of the Bay Area poetry scene has unfortunately begun to do. During this time, Jack and Judith had a daughter, Cristina, and he became the most loving and doting of fathers.
Money was always a struggle for him, and I remember when he worked selling hats at the Schlock Shop in North Beach, because it allowed him time to write in between customers. But I can say from firsthand experience that, during all those busy years, Jack was always available to anyone who needed to talk, always ready to help anyone with an actual task or possible solutions to a problem. His brain was an engine of ideas; and he joked to me once that he had at least three million-dollar ideas every day, but his misery, he confessed, was that he never seemed to be able to put any of them into practice.
Then in 1997 his elderly parents were ailing in McAllen, Texas. Jack moved down there to help take care of them, and took the job of director at a museum to support his family. One of the most insightful things I ever read about Jack was written by Artful Goodtimes: "Jack is a competent kind of dude," Goodtimes wrote, "at the same time that he's a crazy, wild, mad poet."
I never saw Jack again after that move, nor did a lot of people he had known in the poetry scene. He never stopped writing, and would reportedly scribble poems on napkins and notecards at the museum. But when he retired from the museum, now divorced from Judith, he moved to a hermit's redwood cabin on a mountain cliff near Telluride, on what's called the "Western Slope" of Colorado. His cabin became the gathering place for local poets, which he loved, and he became a sage among them. I got a few emails from him during this period, where he claimed to be spending seventy percent of his time in solitude, thirty percent with people—a ratio he thought ideal. He also told me he'd come to the conclusion that the most important thing a person could do with their life was to "leave something behind," something that would help or enrich others on the planet.
Jack left a daughter he could be proud of, to be sure, a daughter who also turned out to be a writer. But he also left a sizable body of work. In his last few years, he was lucky to make friends with a young writer named Danny Rosen, who founded Lithic Press in part to publish some of Jack's vast accumulation of manuscripts. It was Lithic Press that published Amor Fati, Jack's opus magnum, in 2013.
Reading Amor Fati was like the pleasure of getting reacquainted with an old friend after many years of absence. You might not know it by the number of its reviews (though it got a sensational one in ZYZZYVA by Maggie Milner) or by the nominations it received for various poetry prizes (none that I know of), Amor Fati is one of the most impressive books of American poetry in recent years. It is one of the most complete autobiographies of a poet's mind that I know, comparable in some ways to Charles Olson's Maximus Poems or Robert Duncan's Bending the Bow—both of whom were heroes of Jack's. Like both those poets, Mueller blends his vast learning with a heightened consciousness of his personal experience, and is simultaneously in touch with the toughest cosmic questions and the daily riddles of his own existence.
The opening poem, "Amor Fati" (Latin for "love of one's fate"), sets the tone for the book. Lines like "a war distempers me" or "the slow combat of classes in peacetime/ Edges me out of the restaurant" could suggest to some a solipsism—a poet who can't help relating everything in the world to himself. But rather than a weakness, the poem evidences one of Mueller's greatest strengths: his intense aliveness and what might be called his reactiveness to everything in the universe. He is all living nerve ends; nothing gets by him, everything triggers a reaction in him. Like the Beats, another great influence, he is emotional and confessional: "A poem I didn't ask for writes a year off my life." He is vulnerable— "a woman I have never seen/ Seduces me" —and he suffers immeasurably: "my neighbor is poor/ And impoverishes me." But where the Beats could be critical and judgmental of the world around them, Mueller is neither. In reporting his pains and failures (and sometimes also joys and successes), he is defining what it is to be human, as much as, say, John Donne when he writes that "every man's death diminishes me" —which I can't help hearing an echo of in Mueller's words.
Seldom has a poet celebrated his own limitations as openly as Mueller does in Amor Fati. For all his exceptional articulateness (and it would be hard to think of a modern poet more articulate than Mueller, more precise in his choice of words, more able to cite the exact piece of esoteric learning to make his point), Mueller realizes that he is never more than "a slave making a battlesong/ To forces greater than myself,/ For what I cannot change." This is not a cri de coeur, or some Biblical prophet wailing over man's lot; it is, rather, celebratory precisely because Mueller feels delight, even joy, to be alive enough to feel and know such things. Even in what might seem his most bitter complaint, the glint of humor is in his eye and the sarcastic chortle in his voice, as when he reports that the sum of man's achievements is "to be alive and dying at the same time."
To get Jack as a poet, you have to hear the humor in his voice. For those who knew him in the flesh, like me, it's easy enough; but if you didn't know him, he gives you plenty of hints that he is not writing high tragedy. In the same poem I just quoted from, "Tonight," there are also couplets like "If you mix ashes, ink and lard/ You have a chance to be human"; and "At the same time, lucky you, you get/ Another meal another few hours free" —before you die!
Does Jack love his fate? He does, and he doesn't. That's the situation all men and women, not just Jack, are stuck with; and it's from those insoluble contradictions of human life that he draws so much of his poetic energy. He doesn't lament them; he revels in them. His favorite signing line in the books he autographed was, "Stay solid in the mystery." And if anyone ever stayed solid in the mystery, it was Jack Mueller. His most powerful poetic conceit is the paradox, and the vast body of his poetry is built around it.
All poets have their preferred ways into their material, and the paradox was Jack's favorite way in. The paradox is a humorist's tool, but it's also a way of quickly and easily enlarging a subject, because it brings in both sides of a philosophical argument at once. Make no mistake, Jack Mueller was an important philosophical poet—and there aren't a lot of them. In a poem called "Fable Two," for example, Mueller is able to write about both sexual and deeper love, and the intricate relationship between them, in only six couplets; and paradox opens doors for him to material that other writers might spend pages trying laboriously to reach. "What we lose is what love wins," he writes, "a chosen kind of miss" —saying so much in few words about what we give up for love, and what we also gain.
Amor Fati is, in fact, a virtual museum of paradox. One poem, "A Very Young Girl Said," is nothing but a series of paradoxes strung together, and the string holding them is the fact that apparently they have all been uttered by a child (presumably his daughter). If paradox is a kind of ultimate wisdom—and I think Mueller would say it is—then the innocent eye and mind of children seems best able to perceive their magic. "I wonder where the place is/ Where I will be born," the very young child says, sounding like a sage. And: "When I am singing in my mind/ My ear doesn't need the air."
Paradox, of course, is also always ready to serve Mueller the joker. It is hard to imagine a more perfect, or funnier, poem than his "How I won the argument":
All Power to the Paradox
No Power to the Paradox
Some of the funniest moments in the book are when he catches himself reverting almost unconsciously to paradox and mocks his own proclivity: "Me, I'm still carving on/ paradox poetics, with plural headway, but/ without immediate announce." That self-mockery can also grow serious in an instant; and on one occasion, it produces one of his greatest poems, "What can I say?" The poem's subject is all the things the poet will never be able to articulate:
What can I say to the atmosphere
fouled by a fever that's burning below
What can I say to the sucking mouth parts
of a hungry drill stabbing the bedrock
for the last hard blood of earlier times
What can I say to the borders drawn by men
What can I say to big corporations
What can I say to a policeman
But ironically, by the time the poem ends, the poet has somehow encircled all of the conscious universe. He may never understand it, but he has done a brilliant job of recording the litany of its mysteries, much like Kerouac's "Great Rememberer."
There is sometimes anger in his assertion of mind's limits, as in the poem "Twice Taught":
I will not be reduced to false clarity
or deductive explanations of a leaf, falling
I am by condition, complex.
I argue tomorrow and today comes
like a small surprise.…
But Jack cannot go more than a few more lines before the smile returns to his face: "Doubt has a lot to recommend it.…"
The book has plenty of serious messages as well. For all the confusion he sees in human life, and all the destructive impulses that he laments, he still finds hope for the human race; and much of that hope comes from the freedom and perpetual experimentation that he sees as part of the human spirit: "and I say yes, a bunch of humans with serious play/ may someday thaw the frozen hearts of this dumb world." [p.116] The answer to our human miseries—as far as there can even be one—is, in Mueller's view, to live in the moment, to immerse ourselves completely in the physical reality around us, to be as aware and conscious of our daily life as we possibly can. In "When Things Don't Move," he writes:
Threads of my undershirt are frayed, soft,
Feels like a second, forgiving skin.
I hear the 'snick' of the Anna's hummingbird,
sense a faint hint of gardenia over the deck.
Open to artifacts, I put self-loathing aside.
The day is well-used, sumptuous.
My own marks—wrinkles, liver spots, belly—
fold into the evening liberty of this place, these resting things.
Amor Fati is also a showcase of Mueller's heroes. Among those he celebrates in his poems are Charles Olson, the mad, wandering Chinese poet Li Po, the Catholic mystic poet St. John of the Cross, Gouverneur Morris, who framed the Constitution, and the intellectual father of the Renaissance, Pico Della Mirandola. What makes these poems remarkable—besides the fact that he seems to choose only the greatest geniuses as his heroes—is that, rather than some sort of mawkish lyrical worship (as other poets are often prone to when writing of their heroes), Mueller writes about each of them as if he is actually there with them, sensing their humanity, and having natural human exchanges with them, as if his spirit has been teleported in time. One of my favorite poems in the collection is "Li Po," where the eighth-century Chinese poet actually pays Mueller a visit, to help cheer him "out of blue winter" in the Rockies, and they have a wild night playing a sort of "dozens" game with crazy Zen one-liners:
I said, "Evidence! Evidence! Songs are the best
evidence." He said: "I got poems, I can read!"
We almost fell out of our chairs.
"Hey, Breeze," I shouted, "I don't know you,
don't dare, I dare you!" Old Po grinned
and said, "More for us and our mad songs, our adorations."
Most remarkable is the fact that his own father, William Mueller, is perhaps the hero he holds most high, meriting several poems in the collection. It is remarkable because his father was a Baptist minister and noted theologian at various Baptist seminaries, while Jack was one of the more stubbornly antireligious people you might run across. One of his favorite lines was, "Don't give me God! Don't give me grammar!" —a line we had some heated, if always friendly, arguments over at Vesuvio's bar (myself a Catholic with Jesuit leanings). There are reports that even as he lay dying in a hospital in Grand Junction, Colorado, Jack "iced out" any and all chaplains who tried to enter his room. Yet his poem "Proximities" is hands down one of the greatest poems in the collection—if not one of the greatest works of that whole group of poets Jack came out of—and it is a pure tribute to both his devout parents. It begins:
My heart is vitreous
Shaped on a Christian hearth
& a hackberry cane
Would read the psalms
with love's intent
to my hot spring…
In my shape
?And the poem ends even more astonishingly:
& when I ceased
I still believed
But love's power
& what was possible
What Jack believed in, what he wanted more than anything else, was a world at peace, where all men and women were treated as equals, and all were dealt with justly by their governments and their fellow human beings. So much of Jack comes back to life in these poems. There is his frustration with the obvious failures of America: "I call you/ Sleeping invalid of liberty/ And you don't even care." [p.53] There is the absolute awe and reverence he felt toward women as the stronger sex, the sex that made the world go round (in his view) while men were left merely to assist, wonder, and sing their praises. In "When Women Ruled," he writes, "All states larger than a woman can walk in a day are lies," and he seems dead serious about that! [p. 77] There is the Jack who maybe from his world-traveling days in the Peace Corps always saw that all problems must be dealt with in universal terms, or the solutions would be invalid:
Drum tower in Peking
Karnak & Ninevah
Ankor Wat Bayon
Cathedral in Rheims
the Taj Mahal
words are the foundation stone
And finally, there is the Jack who could never help wondering if poetry itself had any absolute worth:
What can I say to the dumb resplendent universe
or the great silence behind us all
What can I say to a body dying
blood turning black
or tissues of old scars
I remember a poet always generous to a fault, who let other poets take his ideas and never complained even when a couple that I knew had very successful books with them; a poet who always tried to put the works of others before his own; a poet who had the seriousness, the gravity, you would expect of a minister's son concerning human life and human problems, despite the wacky humor that was always part and parcel of his world-view; and a poet who never shirked the obligation to act politically to achieve a better world, even though he might still question the existence of an absolute good or absolute evil.
He was a poet, finally, who, despite himself…despite all his brilliance, all his learning and political awareness…couldn't help feeling good about life, and in so doing made us feel good along with him. Maybe that was the greatest gift he gave us:
The sun is out.
What reassuring Energy!
Sharp shadows and all:
with full stomach
and these warm shoes
I can't resist
Gerald Nicosia's most recent book is The Last Days Of Jan Kerouac. This fall he will publish a new poetry collection called The Ghost Of Kerouac & Other Poems, from Holy&Intoxicated Publications in England. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.