Merwin’s Coonskin Coat
The house Martin found for us in Albuquerque was in The Heights, an adobe style house in a whole neighborhood of them.
I enrolled the children in Mark Twain’s school, two blocks away, and Gabriela in preschool cooperative, where I became a class mom. I knew I needed to resume therapy because of my year’s grant from the state department. It turned out that the preschool cooperative was full of therapists.
My first shrink was a modish 1960's psychologist with dubious credentials. At our first session, he asked me to sing a favorite song. I loved the Appalachian folk songs of the miners, so I sang “How dark is the mine,” one of Grandfather’s old tunes. The therapist picked up on this and expounded his theory regarding my emotional attraction to the song.
“Yes,” he said, “It is very dark in your life of the mind.”
“Actually I’m a working scholar and poet,” I replied, “I translate Colombian poetry early in the morning before my children wake up, and then I write my own after they go to bed. I’ve just published a book, in fact.”
It probably was his not-so-latent sexism coming out, but I still sometimes puzzle over that remark. Was it true? What about my very real achievements—did they not count for anything in that male-dominated world?
My second therapist was licensed and more objective. At the end of therapy, I dreamed that I had a bracelet on my wrist like the ones that newborns wear to signal their identity, reborn to begin anew. He reminded me that new babies often are also cold and wet, that I needed to take care of this new life I’d begun.
While we lived in Albuquerque, I sought mentors to guide me in my new-found mission to become both poet and healer. I have been fortunate always to find guides—Mrs. Holbrook, Don Justice, Paul Lawson, May Miller, Molly Shapiro, John Rechy. In New Mexico, Muriel Roth became the great artistic and personal influence on my life, a role that lasted until her death in 1990.
I met Muriel through New York friends. A noted composer, she and her novelist husband Henry came as fellows to the D.H. Lawrence Ranch, where he began writing again after the decades of writer’s block that followed his 1934 masterpiece, Call It Sleep. They stayed on in New Mexico, moving to a small house in Albuquerque. He said he felt protected there. I was comfortable with both of them right away. In their spare adobe cottage, they reminded me of the country folk I knew in Nebraska, frugal yet generous, intelligent without pretense. Both encouraged me in my writing when I gave them a copy of Carta al Norte. Muriel said she would like to set my poems to music.
They often invited our family over for hamburgers on summer evenings. The children raced through the yard chasing the chickens while I sat with Henry and Muriel in the kitchen. Muriel and I identified with each other, creative women who knew the perils of marriage to a troubled writer. But she and Henry somehow made their peace, while Martin and I fluctuated between one makeshift truce after another and open warfare.
Tall, angular, and elegant, Muriel had experienced a great deal of hardship in her life. I got to know her more deeply when she offered to drive me to Taos to work with the artist Enza Quargnali who, despite neither of us knowing anything about magazines, helped me design the first issue of Café Solo. On this trip, Muriel told me that her Episcopalian family disowned her when she married Henry, a Jew and an artist. Her legs had lost their circulation as she aged and she walked with difficulty. I empathized with her challenge because of the phlebitis I’d suffered after Gabriela’s birth in El Paso.
Henry and Muriel both said that my poetry baffled them, but they knew there was passion behind it. Several years later, when I became separated from Martin, Henry wrote a recommendation for me so that I might have a chance to return to New Mexico as a D.H. Lawrence Fellow. Thanks to his support, I stayed and wrote at the D.H. Lawrence Ranch for several months in 1973.
The Ghost in D.H. Lawrence Ranch
I lived there alone.
When I walked down the road through the chamisa and sage,
I paused at the door to let
the ghosts back into their bedrooms.
I never saw them but heard querulous DH scold
Frieda. She and my grandmother, both merry Leos, were matches
for their Virgo husbands. The day of the accident
in the Model T, I was five and remember grandfather
asking her if she were wearing her bloomers
(in case of the hospital). She said, “No, it’s too hot.”
Frieda said, “Get off it, DH,” the time when their car
broke down and he told her not to ride
Tony Luhan’s horse back to Taos. DH Lawrence wrote
Women in Love but I was just a young poet
scared of the vapors surrounding me, who tried to invite
real humans to dinner. The ghost told me to defrost
the refrigerator. It got after me for not writing.
Who was this ghost?
DH Lawrence was for life and I loved every minute
of my fearful life.
When I cooked dinner for Frank Waters and Tally Richards,
Frank said I brought images from outer and inner space.
Tally said, “Instead of ‘Letter to the North,’ you should write
‘Letter to the South.’” Took me twenty years to do that.
She called me repressed. I was just scared of the ghost.
At the end of the summer I left.
Of the multitude of writers who came to my Albuquerque home, the one who impressed my children the most was W.S. Merwin, donning his coonskin coat. That coonskin coat took me back to old fraternity pictures from the University of Nebraska dating from the flapper days of the 1920s. In cold weather, a flapper would wear her boyfriend’s coonskin coat to Homecoming, with a cloche tipped over one eye.
On the day Merwin visited, powdery snow was falling in Albuquerque. My children and I had dashed outdoors to make angels in the white icing. I had come a long way since the spring grass years before in Iowa City.
I told them a great poet was coming to see us. At forty, Merwin was already famous.
“What does he write about?” The children wanted to know.
“Plants and dogs,” I said. They liked him before they’d even met him.
Our company that night included a close circle of writing friends. The Roths were there, along with Gene Frumkin; my partner in creating Café Solo; and W.S. Merwin and his friend, Moira. I served lamb with red chillie, squash and beer, and handed out cigars and dry sherry after dinner. When I asked Merwin for a poem to publish in the first issue of Café Solo, he offered me four translations of the French poet, Jean Follain.
I took a picture of Merwin in his coonskin coat that evening and printed it under his poem, “The Evening Suit” in the first volume of Café Solo. In a later issue, I published his poem about William Bartram’s voyage through North Carolina, “Other Travelers to the River.” Merwin followed me from one home to another, New Mexico to California, and later to North Carolina. He enriched my life with his understanding of Solo Press. He seemed fascinated by agriculture and my avocado ranch.
Like Merwin, Gene Frumkin entered my life when we lived in Albuquerque. Following a divorce, Gene had migrated to Albuquerque from Los Angeles, where his children still lived. He turned out to be one of the most comforting men I’ve ever known.
I first encountered him at a Robert Bly reading. I went up to meet Robert and he, in turn, introduced me to Gene.
“I liked your poems in Kayak,” Robert said. The journal, published by San Francisco poet George Hitchcock since 1964, had become one of the most important poetry venues in the country. I was pleased that he remembered my work. Gene told me later that, after I stepped away, Robert said, “She’s a pretty filly on a short lead.” He divined my feeling of entrapment.
There was nothing I couldn’t tell Gene. He accepted everyone just as they were, without judgment. At the same time, there was something of the Mandarin about him. He lived a life of fine sensibility. Once when I asked him to help me pump fuel at a gas station, he refused. He said he didn’t like the smell of gasoline on his hands.
Humble outwardly, deep inside he felt a natural superiority to others. For the first issue of Café Solo, our leading image was King Ludwig the Mad of Bavaria. We rented a Prussian royal costume and Gene dressed up for the photographer. Just as the photo shoot commenced, my children came home from school with the tri-cornered George Washington hats they had made. They got in the picture with Gene.
Gene seemed to identify himself as natural royalty, and perhaps that’s why he treated us all so benignly. He was the undisputed ruling poet of Albuquerque in the sixties and for decades after. A student of Tom McGrath, Gene taught at UNM and edited the Blue Mesa Review. He influenced many Native American students, including Simon Ortiz, Joy Harjo and Leslie Marmon Silko. In an essay about yoga, Alan Watts wrote that kings and queens go among people with their heads high, nothing to prove. That’s how Gene was.
At his memorial, his companion Mary said that he never criticized her. He accepted people as they were—but he may have thought of us as his subjects. The only time he ever criticized me was at one of the dinner parties I threw in Albuquerque. He said I was acting “too hostess,” too subservient toward my guests. For someone whose mother stood behind him at the table while he dined, it seemed an odd remark.
As the editor of a new poetry magazine, I was eager to meet all the poets Gene brought to town. One of my favorites, but a rather difficult person, was Bert Meyers. Bert’s writing contained wonderful imagery. Some of my favorite lines are from “The Dark Birds”: The dark birds came./ I didn’t know their names./ They wrote in Hebrew on the sand/ so I’d understand. That image reverberates in my mind: the birds’ feet writing Hebrew letters.
One night, Gene took me to a party at Robert Creeley’s house in Placitas, New Mexico. John Rechy, who shared Grove Press with Robert, tried to prepare me for him. Nonetheless, I was taken aback by Creeley’s directness, which bordered on confrontation, even intrusiveness. In a poem about Robert Creeley, Robert Bly compared him to a blackbird. That’s what he looked like. I never developed the ease with him that his students report. He was, they say, very encouraging and supportive, but I didn’t sense that attitude toward me.
As we were reading palms around the fireplace after dinner, he announced abruptly, “You’re pregnant.” That wasn’t good news to me; Fritzy was barely a toddler and I had three older children. I drew my hand away and turned my face from his gaze, made more intense by a patch he wore over one eye.
“Don’t worry, Glenna,” Gene said, “I don’t think you’re pregnant.” Fortunately for me, Robert was wrong and Gene was right.
That same evening, as I leaned against the fireplace, my long blonde hair catching the light, Robert’s wife commented, “You are such a romantic.” Though I think she meant it to be, I didn’t take her remark as a compliment. To me, at that time, to be labeled a romantic meant that I was not to be taken seriously as a poet and scholar. I’d already felt that Martin, with his flippant comments, underestimated me too much in my parallel quests.
Now, much later in life, I understand that being a romantic, even a little frivolous, can bring a lightness that blesses life. All gardens need to have some carnations among the bones of rocks and iris. At the time, I was so focused on literary accomplishment since I first published in Medallín, that I was too sensitive to any perceived poetic slight. I worried about not being taken seriously.
In those heady New Mexico days, I also met Rudolfo Anaya. He is a gentle and generous man, a wonderfully poetic writer. Once, when I had a sore neck from yoga practice, Pat and Rudy came to my house in Albuquerque. They brought a salve that Rudy’s Aunt Ultima had created and Pat massaged the aching places with it.
Rudy chronicled his extraordinary aunt in his book Bless Me, Ultima, which became a film in 2012. The story is a treasure, evocative and rich with tradition. I’m so grateful that he has kept and shared a storehouse of memories of New Mexico’s Indo-Hispano heritage, of spiritual awakening, and the powers that heal body and mind.
When we first moved to New Mexico, I thought my years there would be simply another adventurous episode in my disjointed life, but they turned out to be an enduring, and indeed uplifting, experience that has drawn me back to the high desert again and again. We left Albuquerque for California forty-six years ago. But, whenever I need a shot of spiritual reality, I return to the desert.
A few years later, when I was awarded a D.H. Lawrence Fellowship, I spent a month at the Lawrence Ranch near San Cristobal, north of Taos, now owned and managed by the University of New Mexico. At that time, the ranch was a strange place; I felt the ghosts of Lawrence, Frieda, their friends and lovers wandering the grounds at all hours. Lawrence’s ashes are embedded in a column that stands in front of the meditation space at the top of the property. The story goes that Frieda was afraid Mabel Dodge Luhan, one of his lovers, would steal them.
While in residence, I wrote poems about Taos, the bridge across the Rio Grande that shines like a mercury thermometer in the sun, and the villages of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, with their thin blue air and the mysterious people who have lived there for ten generations.
Alone. I rode the high
mesa. Winds forced me out
to graze with piñones.
Tony, Single, from Truchas
wore the silver cross of penitentes.
We hunted pine nuts, replaced
them with corn for squirrels.
His place: one room adobe,
Books lined four walls.
We made love. I went home to fry
tortillas. For Xmas he gave me
turquoise. I gave him the ouija board.
We never got good as J.M. and D.J.
but the oracle always said
Before I moved I gave him blue
hyacinth bulbs. Remember
me in spring!
Many springs, mine in trout stream,
his in snow, both hyacinth.
The living and writing quarters at the Lawrence Ranch consisted of a long low wooden house, with an old-style horno, an adobe oven in the backyard. Adobes are mud, straw and water—the stuff of the Southwest. They capture light and give off a warm red-brown glow under the afternoon sun. The mud is mixed by hand in a large wood and metal sled, then scooped into wooden molds that look like the ladders that lead to rooftops at Taos Pueblo. When the bricks are set, you lift off the forms. A dry brick, even though just 9” x 10”, weighs almost 40 pounds.
While I was in residence at the Lawrence Ranch, Leonard Randolph, director of the National Endowment for the Arts Literature Program, visited. He was an extremely handsome man, witty and brilliant. Tally Richards, a local gallery owner, warned me not to fall in love with him, because he was gay. I did anyway. Leonard understood my dedication to art and literature. He sensed that I might be a good judge of projects submitted by new and established writers and he respected my reverence for the creative word. I gladly accepted his invitation when he invited me to join the NEA Literature Program grant review panel.
I also met Dorothy Brett, better known as Lady Brett, an English painter who moved to Taos with Lawrence and his wife Frieda to create a utopian society he called “Rananim.” They settled in at Kiowa Ranch (later to become the D.H. Lawrence Ranch), where Brett spent her days painting. The Lawrences left New Mexico after a couple of years, but she made Taos her permanent home. She asked me to read her palm one evening and told me everything I said was true. She had her first date with Winston Churchill, though I didn’t see that in her palm.
Nine years later, in the spring of 1980, I came back for a few months to live in a Taos casita as a Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Fellow. I spent the quiet green days meditating with a mug of coffee and writing. Until late on balmy evenings, fellows and friends met at the home of the director, Henry Sauerwein, to drink and talk, under an aspen-wood jacal.
Those social hours were the best time of my days spent at the casita. I am no hermit; I love the confraternity of writers and artists. Solitary spiritual retreats enrich me, but I can’t stand being alone for long. Taos is just the right hermitage for writers and artists like me—intense creative times alone, but great dinner parties any day of the week.
The desert devours me whole. When I came back to California, after each of my fellowships in Taos, I wanted to bring its fragrance and the dry fierce air with me. If I couldn’t stay in New Mexico, I would bring bits of those burning mountains home with me. So I filled my California home with pueblo pottery and hung a ristra of red chillies by my kitchen door. But turquoise doesn’t glow as brilliantly in California as it does in the golden light of the Taos evening. Now I wear opals instead.
I go back to the desert Southwest almost every year. I need its evocatively-charged austerity, my annual infusion of sage and creosote, to restore inner clarity and replenish my muse.
I have no telephone,
cables are down in the snow.
the antlers of my pelvis
catch me in.
you have reached me.
Square bales of hay
make me think of your pueblo
and you going about,
a thousand times smaller.
The red tunic!
Your long braid.
In the kiva
the beans have sprouted
the pick of a mandolin.
"The Power of Prose"