My father was born in Denver in 1930 to Ruth Murphy and Forest Scott. He had a brother, Vernon, eleven years older. Their father left the three of them in 1940; he died thirteen years later in a VA hospital in Oregon. He had been a very persuasive salesman and, according to my grandmother, an unfaithful husband.
He had been awarded a scholarship to the University of Chicago, but after the United States entered the war in 1917, he was sent down to Georgia to grade exams at the Officers Training School. He didn't cry often, my grandmother told me, but he cried when he'd tell how the candidates for officer cried when they failed the test.
My father grew up poor, in basement apartments he was ashamed to invite friends into. His mother worked at the Denver Dry and then at Lowry Air Force base, and his brother mowed lawns. Some of my father's friends were from wealthy families. They were not at all ashamed to invite him over.
My father was accepted to Dartmouth College in 1947. When he went there in 1948, he hated it. He was on a partial scholarship from a hick town, and the other students made him feel it. He was smart; they made him feel that he wasn't smart enough. They stole his coat, the greatcoat his mother had saved thirty dollars to buy for him. He had to write and ask her to send him another one. (I wore that coat through college and graduate school.)
After the first Christmas break, he was reluctant to go back, but he did. On the train to Boston from Denver, he read Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." He fell in love with literature. The story compensated him for the homesickness he felt, the inferiority and the loss. And no doubt Hemingway made him feel those things more keenly.
His mother had instilled in him the practice of learning poems by heart. Some of her favorites—Hardy's "Darkling Thrush," Housman's "When I was one and twenty"—were already his. But Hemingway was his own discovery, and he knew what was going on in that story. Money was in it and drinking was in it, and some vague searching was at the bottom of it.
The next year wasn't as bad as the first, the third better than the second, but the going back after Christmas was always melancholy. He packed meat or moved furniture in the summers, and worked in the dining hall during the schoolyear.
He saved up for a spring break in Boston; he couldn't afford New York. But there was jazz in Boston, too, and that's what he went to hear. When he and his classmates came back to Hanover, they told stories about what they did, who they went to hear. When they asked my father who he went to hear, he said, "Illinois Jacquet."
"Oh," they said, "Jacquet's just a honker. You gotta hear Getz. We heard Getz. Getz is smooth."
That was probably in 1950, two years before my father graduated (though in his one recurring dream, he never does graduate). He regrets having gone to Tuck Business School in his last year. His grade-point average dropped below what he needed to make Phi Beta Kappa. He still smarts from that. His thumb twitches, as if he were shooting marbles. He used to be very good at marbles.
The night I called to say I'd been elected to Phi Beta Kappa, thirty years after my father graduated from Dartmouth, my mother answered the phone. She cried. She called my father to the phone, and when he came, having heard the inflection in her voice, he wasn't sure which one of his sons had just startled their mother so. He congratulated me, said he wanted a copy of the letter. I didn't tell him that it was a form letter: my name wasn't on it, and neither was the elector's signature. He said he always felt bad that he hadn't been elected.
A few minutes later, he called me back. He told me to go out and celebrate.
"Send me the tab."
It was All Souls' Day, and I drank Guinness, that lovely liquid, that bear fur.
In the spring of 1981, I was in my fourth year at the University of Colorado. I was one of three poets—Gerda Norvig and Steve Martinot were the others—reading one night at the Brillig Works Bookstore on the Hill. When we'd finished our reading, we went downstairs.
There was Allen Ginsberg, companionless. He invited everyone to his apartment for a party.
His apartment was small and crowded. Ginsberg took off his off-white jacket and the Elizabethan purse or wallet he carried over his shoulder. He went into the kitchen and opened the oven. He bent down, his face almost on top of a cut of meat that had the moistness of his upper lip and the color of his lower. I didn't think Buddhists ate meat, and was embarrassed to catch him so intent on his tenderloin.
He looked up and asked for a kiss. I kissed him on the lips. He wasn't having it any other way.
I'd met him twice before, but he didn't remember me, and I didn't remind him. The first time was probably in 1978, when he came to Denver to give a reading at the Museum of Natural History. I went there with Mark Sink and Jamie White, whose step-father and father is Ed White, a Denver architect who appears in Kerouac's On The Road as Tim Gray. White and Ginsberg had stayed in close touch since their days at Columbia, and Ed invited us to go with him that night and meet the famous poet.
When we were introduced after the reading, I said something about how exciting Howl had been to me in high school, and how some of the things he read that night reminded me of E.E. Cummings.
"Oh," Ginsberg said dismissively, "We read Cummings in high school."
So I recited "oil tel duh woil doi sez" and "buncha hard boil guys" from ViVa. Ginsberg said he hadn't read that in high school.
"Yeah," he said, "That's good. Where's that from?"
The second time I met Ginsberg was in 1979, in London, where my parents afforded me a year to read European history at University College London, "the godless college on Gower Street," founded by Jeremy Bentham in 1827. I wanted to become a history professor, and my parents wanted to see me through the process. I worried in letters home about the costs. My father wrote to me on October 4, 1979, in conjunction with wiring almost $3,000:
The most important thing we want you to keep constantly in mind is to keep out of your mind any concern about your expenses during this period in London. Of course, we expect you to be moderately frugal and unprofligate, but not preoccupied about "what it's all costing." This is an experience we want you to cherish each moment of, without thought of cost (within reason obviously), or any other material, utilitarian aspects, which will come into your life soon enough, I assure you. Should you indulge in some extravagance on occasion, it is only fitting and soul-building to suffer uncomplainingly a counterbalancing period of impecuniousness until your funds recover by way of the regular flow of infusions from home. . . . We hope you are going to enjoy your studies and be inspired to continue your superlative academic performance and accomplishment, without "boxing in" your perceptions and enjoyment of your new surroundings. Don't therefore strain at the gnat and miss the camel.
Jamie White was spending a year abroad, too. He was studying to be an actor. On Thanksgiving we went to hear Ginsberg give a reading. When we got up to him after the reading, he recognized Jamie and said his name. Before Jamie could respond, Ginsberg turned slightly my way and said to both of us, "Did you get laid yet? I did, last night, just after I got in. How long have you been here?"
Jamie and I went off to celebrate our American holiday at a Greek restaurant on Charlotte Street, the street Dylan Thomas used to do a lot of drinking on. We were both a little homesick.
I met Ginsberg one more time that year. I was on my Christmas break, back in London from a magical week in Ireland. I spent no time in Dublin, in large part because I met several pompous, pious, evangelical Christians coming over on the boat, and they were too eager to show me around. I hopped on a bus and headed to Cork. From Cork I went to a place called Bandon, I think, where I stayed the night. Very early the next morning, I had the strangest breakfast with an old man. We stood in silence at the kitchen sink. He plugged in the tea kettle. When the water boiled, he threw in two eggs. When they were done, he made two cups of tea from the same water. He handed me a piece of bread and an egg. I did what he did with it, drank my tea, got my things, and left for Kerry.
It was 60 degrees. I hitchhiked and walked. At the end of the day, I happened to be a hundred yards from a youth hostel. There was a little store across the street. The woman there called the hostel's caretaker, who opened the place for me and told me where the coal was for a fire. I bought some beans from the store. The woman noticed my St. Christopher's medal. "I see you've been raised right," she said, and invited me to come over after I'd eaten and sing her and her husband a song. I'd been told I'd be asked for a song in Ireland, and so had learned John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery." I sang it for them in front of their fire. The woman told me I had to come to mass with them in the morning.
I went back to the hostel and took a long, hot bath. I read Tim Severin's Brendan's Voyage by the fire. I went to mass the next morning, then walked off down the road. I was picked up after a few hours by a man and his two children. His name was Murphy. "That's my grandmother's name," I said, "and my middle name." Sensing that I thought I'd found my relatives, Mr. Murphy kindly informed me that "Murphy is the second most common surname in Ireland." He invited me for dinner.
As I sat watching the Christmas parade from New York City on TV, I looked out the window. There was the grandfather we were waiting for, walking over a field. Mrs. Murphy said the potatoes were just now ready and invited me to sit. The plate I thought would be a bread plate turned out to be a potato jacket plate. After the meal, Mr. Murphy drove me out to the main road south and wished me luck. I walked; no cars passed for an hour. It was getting dark. I had to pee—but what if a car came while I was off pissing? I had to, and went. Two minutes after I came back to the road, a car came. The woman took me into the town of Dingle Bay, where the sand was like Guinness foam.
For the next few days, I rarely saw a soul under fifty. The day after Christmas was Wren's Day, and I watched a small, chaotic parade in honor of it. Then I rented a bike and rode out to Dunquin and Slea Head, the westernmost point of Europe, I was told, closest to the Statue of Liberty. When I came around the Head, the wind was so strong it held me stationary.
A few days later, back at my dorm near Euston Station, I dropped off some things, including the cup and plate I bought in Dunquin, and picked up some others before I went to Paris to meet Tim and Connie. I took a train to the point where I'd cross the channel. When I got there, I realized I'd forgotten my passport. I knew that the dorm was now closed for the rest of the break, but I had to go back to go on, so I returned to London. It took me hours to find anyone who could open the place up. While I was waiting, I watched people going in and out of an adjacent apartment building. I went over and peeked inside the flat. I asked if I could borrow a book while I waited for the bursar to come and let me into Ramsay Hall. A woman pointed me to a bookshelf, and there I saw On the Road. I had never read it. Backtracking there for my passport, it seemed a perfect time.
And that's when I met Ginsberg—now as Carlo Marx—for the third time.
So I was meeting Allen Ginsberg for the fourth time when we kissed in his Boulder kitchen in 1981. He still didn't know who I was. I really didn't know who he was, either; all I could think of was the close resemblance of that beef to his lips, and all he could think of was getting that beef cooked rare and sliced thick.
I looked around his apartment and noticed a man off by himself against the wall. He was short, mostly bald, his beard trimmed close. He was smiling. He wore a black T-shirt and jeans. He had a bottle in front of him and a short glass in his hand. I looked closer at the bottle and saw that it was slivovitz.
I had read about slivovitz in the East European history classes I'd taken with Stephen Fischer-Galati. If I remember correctly, the Serbs made it and sold it to the Austrians, and then used the profits to fight the Turks.
Reading about slivovitz had given me a taste for it. Liquor Mart, our church and community center, carried it, both the Serbian and the Israeli brands. I was partial through my reading to the Serbian, though I tried the Israeli. The plums in the Serbian brand made a more delicious liquor, and the bottle was more pleasing. My housemate Jon and I kept a quart of it in the freezer. We drank it from snifters.
There in Ginsberg's apartment, then, was a man after my own heart. His bottle was almost full. I went over to him and started talking about slivovitz. He was glad to have me join him. He said he couldn't get anybody to try it.
This man was Istvan Eorsi, a Hungarian poet and writer, one of Georg Lukac's last students, and the translator into Hungarian of Allen Ginsberg's poetry. We talked and drank almost the whole bottle together. He invited me to come visit him in Budapest. I said I would, and took his address. When I was leaving, I said again that I would come to Budapest.
"No you won't," he said. "Everyone says they come, but no one comes."
I graduated in May 1982. My father sent me a letter with a check in it "for terminal bills and some extra-curricular activities." He added:
It's truly a time in your life for some superbly entitled celebration, but as a word of parental concern and caution, please leaven the festivities with just enough solemnity and moderation to keep from harm's way and cloudy recollections later of this once-in-a-lifetime passage.
It was the happiest May in my life. I had been accepted into the PhD program in English at a prominent university on a fellowship that paid tuition and gave me a stipend of $5,000 a year for four years. My parents were so pleased that they agreed to pay for me to study Italian at the Università per Stranieri in Perugia.
In November, from Perugia, I wrote Eorsi a letter saying that I would like to come visit him in Budapest in early January. He wrote back and said to come. I made plans.
I went to Venice from Rome on January 3, 1983. A young boy got on the train when we pulled into Trieste. He was going back to Yugoslavia. His parents were in the circus, and he had been to visit them on their tour of Italy. While there, he bought a stack of Elvis Presley 45s. He told me—we spoke in Italian—that the Yugoslav Customs agents would search his bag but not mine. Would I put them in my bag when we crossed the border? I said I would. He asked if he could do anything to help me. I said that my Eurail pass would be meaningless once we crossed into Yugoslavia, and that I hadn't bought a ticket that would take me through to Budapest.
He said he would do his best, and he did. But it didn't help. The Yugoslavs confiscated my passport, then gave it to the Hungarians at the border. They kept it all through Hungary.
They wanted me to buy it back with dollars, which I almost made the mistake of doing. In the end, both the Yugoslav and the Hungarian officials accepted lire in payment. They did so at the last possible minute: first at the border of Hungary and Yugoslavia, and then again at the station in Budapest. The train we were on was bound for Moscow.
When I came out of the station in Budapest, I took out Istvan's address and the letter he'd written me. It told me how to get from the station to the building his apartment was in. The street led to the Danube, to the Elzabeth (I remember it without the "i") Bridge. Istvan said his apartment overlooked the bridge, the first one built to link Buda with Pest. Istvan was on the Pest side.
I climbed the five flights of stairs and knocked on his door. Nobody answered.
I took out my notebook and wrote him a note. I was sticking it in his door when I heard someone coming up the steps. It was Istvan. He came smiling toward me, but he was irritated that I hadn't been specific about my arrival. He could have been away, in the country; then what would I have done? I should have written. Taking his keys out of his pocket, he said he had just gotten back from the country and had some true Hungarian slivovitz.
"Come in," he said, "Come in."
He gave me slivovitz and soup.
I learned that Istvan spent four years in prison after the revolution of 1956. Since then, his freedom to publish his own writing was granted him intermittently; at the time, he was under a ban. As a member of the most prominent samizdat in Budapest, he was disobeying it. Two weeks earlier, the authorities had seized thousands of pages from the apartment where the members of the "boutique" met. He was also writing lyrics for The Hobo Blues Band, whose leader wore a Rolling Stones T-shirt. Istvan took me to hear the band practice. As we walked along the Danube, he explained the song I'd be hearing: a man who lives under the river surfaces now and then to sing to a bird, who then flies to the man's beloved and sings her the song.
Istvan told me he could leave Hungary any time he pleased. It sounded something like Orr's predicament in Catch-22. The authorities had offered him passage; his absence would make it easier for them; all Istvan had to do was ask. But Istvan, like his friend Laszlo Reuk, didn't want to leave. Hungary was the only place for a Hungarian writer.
Reuk, too, the son of one of the Hungarian leaders Stalin had had murdered, was free to travel. He had studied architecture in Canada and the United States, but he was staying in Hungary—even though the authorities were moving him over to the Buda side of the Danube on the pretext that he had misfiled his housing papers. When I asked Istvan and Laszlo what could be done to help them, they both said: "Send money. Tell the Americans to send money."
Reuk's apartment was the samizdat headquarters. I attended one of its last meetings. There were eight or ten writers there. In order to talk freely, they turned on a radio, a TV, and a stereo. Jazz was on the turntable; Hungarian came out of the TV and radio. Who knows what the censors heard in their recording.
At Istvan's apartment, overlooking the Danube, which was ferrous rather than blue, I read Kenneth Patchen, John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, and Ezra Pound. Istvan had a copy of John Berryman's Freedom of the Poet, too, and I read that, delighted and amazed by his essay on "Shakespeare at Thirty."
Istvan and I would have breakfast together—bread that was a workout to chew, along with head-cheese, mustards, horseradishes, and garlic sausage; then grapefruit, yogurt, milk, and coffee. Istvan usually left after breakfast. I read and wrote.
One morning, under Ashbery's influence I think, the word "cloy" came to me, and I started a poem called "Whittling"—which wasn't what I set out to do. That took me back to Vail before I was ten, when Mr. Dodge taught Donald and me how to whittle a willow branch. It turned out I didn't know what the word "cloy" meant.
Reading Ashbery reminded me of the time I met him when he came to read in Boulder, and of how my aunt had made me sit down to read Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror in the Catskill Mountains. That led me to think of meeting Ginsberg, which made me think of the wire cutters I used when I was putting in sprinkler systems. And the whole time, I was mesmerized by the surface of the Danube, which is what I was trying to describe as "cloying."
The only "legal" means Istvan had of making a living as a writer during a ban was through translating. He was at work on a Selected Poems of Allen Ginsberg. One day, he came out of the kitchen into the room I was staying in. I was reading The Freedom of the Poet, but I was thinking about the opening sentence of a story Istvan had written. Apart from the translations, it was the only thing of his he had in English.
It said: "There are three kinds of people: those who look in the mirror and say 'I,' those who look in the mirror and say 'You,' and those who look in the mirror and say 'He.' I belong to the third kind."
Before I could ask Istvan about it, he said he was translating the "Elegy for Neal Cassidy" and had come upon a problem. Maybe I could help him. He had not translated this poem before, he said, and he wanted to do it right because he liked it very much.
"I make good poems in Hungarian," he said.
I said I'd never read the poem, but would help him if I could.
The passage that troubled him named "the prophetic honk of Louis Jordan" and "Illinois Jacquet."
Istvan said, "Now I know what is Illinois, but what is this Jacquet? And what is honk?"
So I told him the story my father had told me, which was the only thing I knew about Illinois Jacquet.
It made me happy to think that my father, thirty years earlier, had heard the sounds that inspired Ginsberg and Kerouac, rather than those that soothed the rich kids at Dartmouth—my father, with his cold washcloths to wake us up in the morning and his drunken rages to make us understand the world at night; with his love of Bob Dylan's "Wigwam," George Thoroughgood's cover of "One Bourbon, One Scotch, and One Beer," David Bowie's "China Girl," the drummers and percussionists of Santana, War's "City, Country, City," Lou Reed's "Coney Island Baby" (he loved the line, "Just wanna play football for the coach"), and Van Morrison's "Dweller on the Threshold."
His recitations of "Gunga Din" made that the first poem I committed to memory. He recited other Kipling, too, "Danny Deever" and "The Road to Mandalay," and Dylan Thomas's "In my craft and sullen art." He learned and recited Yeats's "Leaders of the Crowd" during the Reagan years.
Five months after Craig, my younger brother, died, he wrote to me to ask that I take a minute to read Dylan Thomas's "The force that through the green fuse." He had just memorized it "as a memoriam to Craig—it seems to have a mystical appropriateness—prophetic—proleptic to Craig's life and spirit. What strange, inimitable figures of speech!"
He had started to run in 1977. By 2001, he had finished seven marathons, almost making his desired time of three hours and thirty minutes, and one team-triathlon, with my older brother, Bruce, doing the swimming, and Craig the cycling. He read Saint Anselm's proof of the existence of God and the long preface to it by Charles Hartshorne, which impressed him more than Anselm's argument. He could recite the last paragraph of Camus' The Rebel, and I copied him. When I played Tom in The Glass Menagerie, he said he'd rather shoot himself in the head than get up on stage.
My father, who gave me the Baltimore Colts and poetry.
He kept an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser running well for twenty-three years. When he sold it, he sent me, with Bruce's blessing—to whom, as final caretaker, my father with his sense of fairness offered the money—a check for $750 dollars. It was my thirty-sixth birthday, the only one, so far, that has troubled me. I called my father to say so. I told him I didn't think I'd make it to thirty-six; now that I had, I said, I had little to show for it: no job, no career, no wife and no children, no house, no car, no savings. When you were thirty-six, I said, you had all of those.
I don't remember what his response was, but I can hear him reassuring me, telling me that times have changed, that "mortgage" means "dead hand," that I have to keep taking "the human footsteps."
He had told me many times in my twenties, "Don't go into business, and don't be in a hurry to get married and have children."
On my thirtieth birthday, he wrote: "It enhances us and makes us proud to tell people our Mark is a poet, a teacher, a scholar and a loving son. Keep it all up, and don't let the ignorance and indifference get you 'down and blue.'"
One January, at home on vacation, I went up into his room to see if he had written anything in the notebook my mother had given him for Christmas. We both wanted him to write again, as he had in college. I found a poem, dedicated to his brother on his birthday, called "Reveries While Running."
How the tall branches blew outside our
windows during spring rains,
And the ice for our summer tea
was picked from an ice box,
And you wheeled a lawnmower on
the handle bar of your Iver-Johnson
To make money for my shoes,
in those still-Depression years
before the War. . . .
I don't think he ever sent it to Uncle Vernon. He never mentioned that he'd written it.
Dad died in 1953, when I was in Augsburg.
You and Mom said he was in a VA Hospital
in Oregon. We hadn't seen him in years and,
love lost for the drunkenness, misused intelligence,
obesity, none of us really seemed to care.
Your lifetime already exceeds his, and mine
ever faster approaches it—how strange!
In the summer of 1990, he showed me a brief poem he had written for Craig. I was moved by it; it was a good poem; I told him so. I took it and typed it up. I sent it to him with a note, praising it for its quality as a poem, and telling him that I was submitting it for publication, which I did. I included in the envelope a poem I had written for him using lines from his poem for Uncle Vernon. Finally, in the habit of my ambivalence toward him, I needlessly emphasized our different beliefs about what happens after death, and asked him if he would allow me to differ from him. He answered me:
I know I will never be able to fully articulate—and why should one need or want to?—my glow and warmth over your reaction to and praise of my "cry of the heart" for our dear Craig—so it is more than enough just to carry it with me as a gift from you—an accredited practitioner of "the sullen art." Thank you so much for that, as well as your marvelous poem for me, betraying your reading and recollection of the "thing" I wrote for Vernon—how many years ago? Very flattering and gratifying.
About "differing": of course we can, except over loving each other in spite of our differences, and my shortcomings over your years. As Nama used to say, "If I'd known better, I would have done better." If, as I heard a priest, dying of cancer, say recently on TV, God not only forgives our shortcomings, but also forgets them—why should we go around carrying this great burden of guilt? . . . . we can and will differ, Mark, with the proviso I already mentioned about steadfast love, and each of us must forge our own consolations, and we must respect that—for, as even Jesus said to the complimentary young man: "Good? There is only One who is good."
He taught me folds of the paper plane, tucks of the army bed; told me to keep my shoulders back when I stood and off the pillow when I slept; to oil my mitt, to get down on my knees one day a week.
It was from him that I first heard the beautiful phrase, "to carry oneself." He liked to say, "If you walk like a duck, and talk like a duck, you are a duck."
He wanted me to know the job was tough before I took it.
He said, "act natural"; "you're in the doghouse"; "don't cry before you're hurt."He told me that "belligerent" was the first word he fell in love with.
"Justify," "consolation," "prudence"—he loves those words, too.
And these phrases: "mixed blessing," "blessing in disguise."
Once when he was drunk he caught himself "waxing sentimental."
Craig said, "No, Dad, you're waning sentimental," and he laughed at himself.
About the Author
Mark Scott is a poet and an editor of College Hill Review. An essay of his was published recently in Southwest Review, and he has a poem forthcoming in Raritan.