[In late 1987 I’d finished a reading tour in the US and Canada with a couple of other Australian writers. I flew from Toronto, via Chicago to Denver for a prearranged meeting with Edward Dorn. Parts of the journal transcribed below were subsequently edited down and rewritten as a poem called ‘West’. The poem first appeared in Mangroves (University of Queensland Press, 2003) and subsequently in my Shearsman selection Compared to What (2005). It was in part picking up Dorn’s language, an imitation of sorts that became an elegy.]
5/11/1987 My flight arrives in Denver around 8.30. Wait in the petrol atmosphere for the Best Western courtesy bus. On board – a guy with iguanas in his bag. Check in and phone Ed Dorn – he sounds good – and seems prepared to drive me around tomorrow.
6/11 At breakfast, a cowboy tells the cashier: ‘I'm pretty sure that's not the design on my tie, I think I dribbled’. The accents out here differ from the midwest twang and the place as a whole seems slower, though no less businesslike. Planes and hotels full of guys selling computers – ‘Where the biggest, baddest outfit in town is something called storage technology’ [Tom Clark]. I get a courtesy bus to the airport and a cheap RTD. into town. Buy my Amtrak ticket at Union Station. It’s Friday after nine and the streets around the railroad station seem deserted. Yet it’s here and in the inner suburbs where you get a sense of what Neal Cassidy’s Denver must have been like. Within minutes I'm on a bus for Boulder. It skirts the edge of the city – a wasteland of metal bridges and factories. The bus approaches the Rockies. Along the way a sign tells me what Tom Clark was on about: STORAGE TEK. Behind it, in the smooth fawn hills, rows of bunker-like structures.
Into Boulder (about 30 miles out of Denver). The University of Colorado with its uniform coloured bricks and curved Mediterranean tiles, then the bus depot, where I phone Dorn and he comes to pick me up. We go back to the house where I meet Jennifer D. Have some coffee. Then we drive to the printing press where Rolling Stock, the magazine they edit, is in production (the 14th issue). It has a print run of 3000 and around that many copies are thrown away in the process of getting the registers right before the actual run can begin. Two of the other guys involved turn up – and the staff staple and trim a handful of copies for our perusal. Ed and Jenny drive me to the motel where I leave most of my gear, then we rejoin the others at a bar downtown to celebrate the new issue. Drink Watneys beer. Then I go back with E and J to their house – meet their son and daughter (who plays electric guitar in a band). Jenny goes to buy fish and Ed and I go to a huge wine shop where I buy a bottle of Napa Valley white. Another friend from U. Col, Sidney Goldfarb, calls in and stays for dinner. He looks at The Ash Range and says he's keen to read a long poem which isn’t on any course. For dinner – a soup, trout with vegetables and salad, and a dessert ice-cream cake which the Dorn’s son made. Jenny. is writing about Dean Reed, a singing Marxist cowboy from out this way who was killed in East Germany a few years back, and has a few wonderful related items including a college year book from 1956 which is pure American Graffiti. I'm fading so Ed drives me back to the motel. He is going to phone Tom Clark and set up a meeting. Clark is at present writing a biography of Olson, but is being hampered all the way by the guardians of the faith i.e. George Butterick (and even, sadly, Creeley) because he's not into hagiography.
7/11 Motel rooms can have all the ‘homely’ aspects in the world, but you can never quite belong in them. The furniture suggests uses it will never have, the utilities are, like the politesse of waiters, threats of extortion. I walk up Pearl Street in the cool air, the mountains within touching distance over to my left. Find a yuppie shopping mall (everything wooden) and stop off for coffee in a place with Indian corn and orange pumpkins in the window. Keep walking up the mall. Pinball palaces under the Rockies. Get a bus timetable, then find another breakfast joint – this time a patisserie. The main street is vacuum clean. I phone the Dorns and get the address and directions from their daughter, Mia. Walk up the hill and check in. Coffee and a sandwich – then Ed drives me up to a lookout behind the town. We walk from the car up a stretch of closed road till there's a view west across a canyon to the first of the steeper ranges – the Rockies proper – covered with snow. Then we look back out over Boulder and walk back with the 60° angle of the Flatirons ahead. Drive around through the edge of town and up Table Mesa (a case of tautology) where there’s a large modern installation which tests ‘atmosphere conditions’, monitors winds &c and is dimly connected to star wars. We pick up my Martial MS., and go to a bar in a big old hotel. Ed (and later Jenny) look over the Martial and like it a lot. They want to take some for Rolling Stock – also suggest that if I want to write an article from Australia. they'd be interested [the article appeared in the next issue in 1988, along with some of the Martial poems – attributed to Catullus]. Dinner is good – an Indian chicken dish with rice and cucumbers in yoghurt, and the wine I've picked up (another Zinfandel) is pretty good also. Stan Brakhage rings up and talks to Jenny about his marital problems and the grim business of teaching. Jane Brakhage has been writing for Rolling Stock and lives in a car. They’ve been apart about a couple of months after 20 or so years and Stan is having an inconclusive sounding affair with a young student. While we were out Anne Waldman had called. Ed phones her back and asks if she wants to go for a drink but she has already gone to bed. After photocopying some Martial we go to a bar in a Mexican restaurant where – as everywhere else in town – the 16 year olds are trying to get drunk. Then E and J drive me back to the motel.
8/11 I go down 28th for breakfast at the LA. (Last American) Diner – a chromium masterpiece with waiters and waitresses on roller skates. It’s a fine clear day. Write a postcard, pack and walk up to the bus terminus on 14th and Walnut. En route for Denver, notice that last night gave the front range (beyond the foothills) a coat of snow. In Denver get a cab to the Regency Best Western. My room, on the 10th floor, looks over industrial waste – the South Platte River buried in there somewhere and probably a putrid creek at this elevation – and out to the west and southwest, the Rockies. In the last 20 years the town known to Kerouac et al. has been swallowed by microchip Denver. All of its tall buildings date from this period. And a whole lot of them are half-empty – the big boom predicted didn't materialize. But the place has pretensions and sees itself as one of the five or six most-likely-to-go-ahead places. The charm resides in Denver’s failure to measure up. Across the tracks, across the river, Denver goes Mexican. It seems that what Ed says about Chicago would hold here: that unlike NY or LA, to be poor doesn’t necessarily mean one should lose all self-respect..
Downstairs in the Stuff’d Shirt Bar – the T.V.news. Provinciality is measured by the degree to which role models – TV announcers &c – approximate to the metropolitan ideal: the accent mightn’t have the same sharpness; the fashions date a little – but a straining towards the model is always perceptible. The ‘cast of thousands’ common to contemporary news programs complete each other’s sentences – as though ‘personality’ existed. The languages of America are seductive. This journal succumbs, aware and joyous in its slide. It’s a pleasure. But maybe it’s more so because it comprehends a limited duration.
The prevalence here of cowboy hats.
And the stretching of vowels: ‘The house shar-blee.’
Someone asks for a doggy bag for drinks.
I think I like the west a lot (‘west’ not including the Pacific Coast).
One for the room.
The barman answers the phone: ‘Stuffed Shirt?’
9/11 The cab driver into Union Station is a WW2 vet who reckons he has a CIA. file an arm long since he'd participated in anti-Vietnam activities. He figures that Reagan has been dead for some time and what we have up there is some kind of robot. He used to be a postmaster but since Vietnam he's been driving cabs. A nice guy.
Union Station is filled with railroad memorabilia – the rail, ceasing to be functional, becomes an ‘experience’.
‘You must have shoes on at all times while travelling in the train.’
The chief steward is called ‘Noel, that’s K.N.O.W.E.L.L . . . I wear my Amtrak identification badge over my heart – where it should be . . . and I walk numinously down the train.’ As the journey progresses, Noel turns out to be a pain in the ass. He recites geological litanies in third-grade dialect – and in the evening there’s a quiz. Somewhere behind me in the compartment, a 22 year old woman and an old man discuss human nature endlessly. Up front, a harassed looking young woman and a rather boring moustachioed gent – the woman constantly being calmed down by a wonderful stewardess who is a mountain of good sense.
The train winds up the foothills and crosses the continental divide 9,500 feet up, in the Moffat Tunnel. The lounge car staff are officious (one spills my soup over the table and doesn’t give a refill). I share a table with two old gays who are charming, quiet spoken old-style San Franciscans. One later notices me reading Timothy Findley and recommends Robertson Davies. In the evening, cross into Utah, through Ruby Canyon. I dine with a young gay from Salt Lake City (‘Are there many gay people in Australia?’) who spills his salad dressing; and a good humoured black woman from Cleveland. When he describes life in Salt Lake, its restrictive liquor laws &c. then talks of the large size of Mormon families, she says ‘At least they’re doin somethin right’. Salt Lake Station at around 11 p.m. mountain time is a monument to cleanliness – even the smokestacks have been polished. Don't think I’d like it there much.