Anne Wingate told me about Ada Calhoun’s memoir/biography of poet Frank O’Hara and her father, Peter Schjeldahl, Also a Poet. Peter was at college, Carleton, with Annie and Billy and me. Annie hadn’t read the book. She read to me over the phone from online reviews.
As I listened, I was fascinated by the whole framework, the structure of the book. Frank was a friend and mentor of Ada’s father. When Ada found Frank’s poetry, she loved it. For years growing up, she carried O’Hara’s Lunch Poems with her everywhere. Around the time that Ada was a toddler, Peter had begun to work on a biography of O’Hara, recording interviews with many of their mutual friends and acquaintances. When Ada stumbled on the tapes, as an adult, the project had been long abandoned. Ada had always hoped that their love of O’Hara and his poetry could forge a bond between her father and herself. She asked Peter’s permission to complete the project. He agreed, but her attempt eventually foundered on exactly the same reef which had doomed her father’s earlier effort. As Ada tells the story of this misadventure, she shares and supplements some of the interviews which Peter recorded, a partial triumph. But in the end, we have Ada’s memoir and not Peter’s O’Hara biography.
I was immediately fascinated by this project. I too have tussled for years with my father’s unfinished life. Making the story even richer, Annie tells me that anecdotes in the reviews indicate Peter was a terrible father and that part of what comes through in Ada’s narrative is how through the act of finishing Peter’s book, -- and I feel in that she is going past, transcending her father, becoming, I imagine, her own good father, -- Ada resolves some of the disappointment of her childhood. The book is more memoir than a biography of either Frank or Peter. And I am fascinated with memoirs. And I am drawn too by my connection to Peter.
The next day I buy the book.
Peter left Carleton after my junior year. We were friends but not close, perhaps because we came from such different backgrounds. He was a townie, grew up in tiny, Midwestern Northfield. I was indelibly a New York Jew, although Peter went on to become quite the New Yorker.
Even before I met Peter in person, I had a kind of introduction. Within my first day or so at Carleton, I set off across campus for some sort of freshman orientation event at the college observatory. I didn’t know my way around campus but I could see the dome in the distance. I just walked toward it. And walked and walked.
It was a while before I realized something was wrong. I was way off track. I am not sure how I figured this out or maybe somebody explained it to me, -- my new friends in the dorm must have thought this was hysterical, -- my dome in the distance was not the observatory but the Echo satellite tethered at the Schjeldahl plant. Peter’s father and the Echo were big deals in town, important business. I never knew why Peter had come to Carleton. Most of the townies who attended came because it was financially easier for their families if they lived at home. I never made it to the observatory. I don’t think I ever actually entered the observatory in my four years at Carleton.
Peter and I were friends because we travelled in the same artsy circles on campus, although I didn’t find that space until the end of my freshman year. I had been an editor of my high school newspaper and first tried to fit in with the college newspaper crowd, but it never really clicked emotionally. By the end of that year though, I knew that the theater people were a much better fit for me. And the literary magazine. It seems to me that Peter was there, but dropped out of Carleton, then returned. We spent time writing together my junior year. We would hang out in my dorm room writing, Peter and I, and sometimes, I think, Peter Bornstein and Kenny Moss. We would drink and smoke and write late into the evening. One night Peter taught me a trick. We would write poems and type them up and cut the paper into strips so that each line of poetry was a separate strip of paper. Then we would shuffle the strips and randomly place them in a new order. The idea was that images which we would never have thought consciously, intentionally to have put together suddenly appear. It was a very exhilarating process— or we were drunk.
One night, Peter pulled a rabbit from the random hat: “Buffalo blue humid subways.” I don’t know if he ever did anything with that image but the line has stayed with me all these years.
Peter left Carleton after my junior year, I think for the final time, to live with classmate Linda O’Brien in Greenwich Village. We used to head to New York and the Village whenever we had a chance. But I don’t think I ever saw Peter in New York. The really fascinating Carleton dropout was Peter Tork who was in Hamlet with us and who played banjo in our pick-up folk music bands on weekends. I played the washtub bass. Tork was not yet quite a Monkee, but he was working in the coffee houses, passing the hat and he knew famous folk artists like Casey Anderson whose record we owned.
After graduation though, Bornstein and I took Schjeldahl’s Christopher Street apartment, a sixth floor walkup with the shower in the kitchen. Peter had taken off to Paris with Linda. While he is out of the country, we babysat a gigantic oil painting which Peter had collected.
I was intrigued now to learn more about Peter’s life. We had connected only once since Carleton. He was by then the famous art critic for the New Yorker, and we had just started the Arts of Recovery program of The Verrazano Foundation. We were putting on exhibits of work by artists living with mental illnesses at Snug Harbor Cultural Center. I reached out to Peter, hoping that he would take a look, maybe write something, help give credibility to the Recovery Movement. He didn’t.
But what I think probably drew me most to Ada’s memoir was the idea that she had used the writing to work through her relationship with her “bad” father. Approaching my dissertation in sociology at NYU, I had somehow come upon the advice from Everett Hughes, the guru of the Chicago sociology school, to his graduate students. “You don’t need to resolve your neuroses in order to do your dissertation,” he advised. The dissertation, he knew, derailed so many of us. “Resolve your neuroses through your dissertation.” Words to that effect.
I ran with that advice. My problems with authority had gotten in my way at so many junctures in my life. By then, well into my analysis, I was pretty well aware that problems with authority were rooted in my relationship to my father. I did my dissertation on Max Weber’s theory of authority. I wrote a biographical chapter about Weber’s difficult relationship with his father, very psychoanalytically oriented — I didn’t have the wisdom or the courage to include a chapter on my relationship with my father; perhaps, I have the courage now, fifty years later — but the chapter was expunged at, the urging of my advisors, from the dissertation which was eventually accepted.
“Get rid of all the psychoanalytic garbage.”
Get your Ph.D. and move on. You don’t have to complete your life’s work as a doctoral student.”
Our daughter Morri (Morrigan), formerly known as Jamie, changing her name, I imagine, as part of giving herself a fresh start, is becoming a writer, is a writer. It has taken me a while to begin to call her “Morri”. She hates that too, almost as much, but appreciates it as a step in the right direction. “’Morrigan’ or ‘Igan’ would be better,” she tells me; but I’m not there yet. “Morri” is still my little girl. Through all our pain, there are pieces of her childhood that I am clinging to, cherishing.
Morri had a very rough adolescence. We saw signs even in elementary school —really Dee did, I tend always to see the glass as half full even when it’s pretty empty —we had tried to get her the help that she needed in so many places —after all, Dee and I are both psychiatric social workers; we met working together with severely troubled adolescents — and we failed to get Morri the help that she needed. I think we’ve come to accept that we did the best we could and to accept that it wasn’t good enough although we still don’t know what would have been better, what the help was that we never found. Maybe there was no answer.
Morri was hurt by this. She has talked some about how I let her down, how angry she has been with us, with me. And about how much she loves us. She has written some fiction in which the fathers are less than laudable, to say the least. She has reassured me that they are “not about you.” But I have sometimes worried to myself about what she might one day write.
Over the last four years, Morri has taken charge of and is transforming her life. She changed her name, found herself a therapist she could work with, took herself off meds, finished therapy. She lost weight, transformed her body, went back to college. She looks wonderful. She is getting spectacular grades. And we are having an increasingly wonderful life as a family. Morri will be taking a poetry writing course this Fall. I have been thinking about writing some poetry again myself, another thing on my retirement to-do list, perhaps capping verses for the Gateless Gate koans. I think of doing some of Morri’s Fall assignments alongside her. She seems to like the idea. Morri is also saying she should be reading more poetry. I should too, I think.
I joke to Annie, “Don’t tell Morri about the book.” She and Billy and I all have a good laugh. They know, of course, about Morri’s difficult adolescence. But I buy Also a Poet the next day while Morri and I are at Barnes and Noble together. I tell her about it.
I am eager to read Ada’s book. I imagine that it will be her version of the story that I am hoping Morri will someday write.
I am disappointed, although I enjoy the book.
It’s a good read, though it is not the story that I hoped it would be. The arc of Ada’s story brings her to some acceptance of her disappointment in her father, to some acceptance of her inability to ever get from her father what she wanted. Peter seems, at the end, to be as “bad” a father as ever.
Disappointed but not discouraged. I am still full of hope that Morri’s book will have a different arc in which the parents grow as well through the trauma of the family journey.
The following day, I buy a copy of Lunch Poems. Maybe Morri and I will read them to each other.
Reading an early draft of this blog, Annie suggests a postscript: She read in a New York Times review that after the publication of Also a Poet, Ada did find some reconciliation with her father. Peter loved her book.