Monday, August 6, 2012

Robert Duncan, interviewed by Bob Callahan, "The World of Jaime de Angulo" (1979)

So I had heard about this man who lived on the Sur, and who lived like an Indian shaman. And in the '30s they still talked about how extraordinarily beautiful Jaime was. He was certainly a very beautiful old man. In one of the ironies of the time, in a treatment for cancer, Jaime took female hormones. And I remember coming into what is now your kitchen-dining room, and Jaime was washing himself stripped to the waist, and he had female breasts, of course, because he had been taking female hormones for some time. It came as a great shock at that point; I mean, he had become a hermaphrodite in that sense. Another aspect of Jaime was that he was also a transvestite, and he liked to put on Nancy's clothes and go to San Francisco and seduce young girls, who never discovered he was a man because his sexual activities were not of a kind that would display that little secret to them.

But I think the transvestite role was certainly keyed to Jaime's constant fascination with what was a shaman. I have a very pronounced pelt on my back and neck, and Jaime told me that I would qualify in the Sur community as a were-bear, and he was fascinated because in my poetry bears had already appeared. Since I spent my childhood at Yosemite, why of course bears appear, along with snakes, but Jaime's very immediate fantasy was, and very seriously, yes, [that] exactly.

In Jaime's generation's writings on the American Indian they had noticed immediately the homosexual shaman, and Jaime's transvestite was a male lesbian, which means that you cross sex lines. I think that the crossing of sex lines meant to the Indian that you could also cross between the living and the dead. One of my observations of the shamanism of Gary Snyder is to raise this question—he seems to be a very straight character compared with the shamans we read about. Jaime's shamans have not only crossed sex lines but crossed every line entirely. They rob, they break the law, don't they? This is like that movement in the Jewish world in the eighteenth century in which you simply break all the commandments, turn them upside down. You are still related to the tribal commandments, but you break them all. And that means you have a kind of magical relationship with them, because you have transgressed, you've gone across. And of course the central idea in shamanism is going across.

Jaime, when he was dying, wanted more and more to tell about what he thought was the reality that was going to be there when he died. And he said he understood what it was the Indians were talking about. the model could be found in contemporary physics. Jaime would draw a parabola that went out into endless space, and say this is it: "I pass into this, and go back into the universe." So he had an Orphic conception of the universe. In its prayer of death Orphism says: "I return myself to the universe, out of which I came."


I said that Jaime really hated Jung. This also means he didn't read later Jung at all, and he never reflected very much on what Jung came to say. He'd tell only certain very scornful stories about this German guy listening to these Indians. But he had another very personal reason in doing this. I think before I say a little more about Jung, one should bear in mind that Jaime's picture of what happens when you die is very different from Jung's need to have a center with a circumference. This of course is a great figure in the Christian Judaic ego relation to the universe, i.e., "I am the center wherever I am."

Now Charles Olson always kept that. His death figure was "I am the center." I said: "I've come to see you die," and he said: "I'm not dying now." As if his "I" was the Center. His "I" had become identical with It, the Center of the Circle. But also Charles was devoutly Jungian; Jung had given him his whole replacement for the Catholic. So he had retained that Catholic figure of God as the Center of the Circumference.

Jaime, on the other hand, was profoundly not Catholic at all. His figure was a parabola going out to no center. He proudly showed me: there's no center, there's no center in the universe, he said. Get it out of your head. Look at contemporary physics. There's no center...

I'm more a Jaime-kind. It does not interest me that I might be the center of a circumference. I play with both of these views, and tend to be mercurial with coexisting possible universes...

And Jaime remained intensely interested in contemporary physics, and would read it over and over again. And yet he was always angry when a physicist like an Einstein or a Bohr or a Max Planck would try to put his model together with the Judeo-Christian concept in which the universe assumes a personality. Because for Jaime he was already a great personality, and that was quite enough personality to have around. Here he comes in line with Olson; like Olson, not being a physicist, Jaime searched the mythology of what is our physical universe. He died before we have our picture, our contemporary picture of merging realities at the particle level. But it was there, the great questions were there, and they excited him, because he could enter the ground of great questions. To die, for Jaime, was a very great thing. To die, for Jaime, was a very great thing.


  1. John Wieners, "July 21 AM," The Journal of John Wieners is to be called Scott Street for Billie Holiday 1959: "The sea. Senses, how they are dulled. Do drugs/because they stimulate when they wear off/leave one down, needing the drug to rise to what next/presents itself. Yet it has been over two years/since I began a steady use of them. And I feel my writing/my being flows out and in from the universe with more give/and take, that there is a parabola/in us, hollow places where we float into the abyss, knowing/the shape of all things around us.//Contour//Feel. Her rose vulva,//guarded by the flesh of her legs. Oh Joanna you let me know your secrets and I love you for it.//4. The Tarot Deck. I pick one every day and it is the day./Sets the tone. Unleashes a chain of events/that I love on, off. Capricorn. The land and/sea. The narcotic and natural. Man and all/the generalities. I was going to say Woman/The Womb. That secret Place. She has the/[cobalt/bomb in her womb. Francesa. Madam La Farge. The Flower Girl with giant nasturtiums spread out over her giant breasts and thighs./Cunt that I could smell in the car. Sitting on/her lap. Singing to me: You must have been a/beautiful baby. Joanne with her two beside her sleeps and laughs in the big bed..."

  2. Ibid., "Oh house what enchantment have I wandered into./The poem progresses of my own life, and pulls/[me/along with it. When man cannot write in a/[place/he leaves that place. I do now write myself out/but renew myself daily. I am in accord with the/word of my time. What my space is I do not/[know./These two continuums are unknown to me./Not like my flesh. I am learning that. It/is the key into all wisdom, is wisdom as the/man who wrote "Against Wisdom as Such," says/My master. Who reveals so much to me, and/who acknowledges me, was the first to recognize/and save me from the self condemnation I/[practiced/Let me know the chambers of my soul. Even tho/he would never acknowledge my using/those words. Medieval, he said of the heart./We have to be post-modern. Or/more.//The Stars. *Etoiles.*/It's enough writing. the night makes me stop. I do not and do//practice compulsions."