For almost 30 years a small black-and-white ink drawing of pansies has hung on a wall wherever my family has lived. It has caught my eye nearly every day and never yet bored me. Its creator was Joe Brainard.
Born in Salem, Arkansas, in 1942, Brainard grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where, as a junior in high school, he met the writers Ron Padgett and Dick Gallup; became friendly with the poet Ted Berrigan (then a student at Tulsa University); and with them and a few others formed the city's minute bohemian population. Moving to New York in the early Sixties he shared a store-front apartment with Berrigan for a while, painting during the day while Berrigan slept, then sleeping during the night while Berrigan wrote. Padgett and Berrigan introduced him to the poets of the New York School, with many of whom Brainard was soon collaborating. Issue No 2 of C Comics, for example, has more than 100 pages of his drawings with texts by John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Frank O'Hara, Peter Schjeldahl, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, Kenward Elmslie, Tony Towle, Bill Berkson and others. Subsequently he illustrated more than a dozen books of poetry, including Bean Spasms (1967) by Berrigan and Padgett; The Champ (1968) by Kenward Elmslie; and Self Portrait (1972) by Anne Waldman. He continued working with Elmslie until the end, spending summers with him in Vermont.
Himself the author of nearly 20 books and pamphlets, Brainard is best known for the I Remember series, first published separately in the early Seventies by Angel Hair; collected in one volume by Full Court Press; and soon to be re-issued by Viking/Penguin. This sequence of over 1,000 prose-poems is not only an autobiography, but a cultural history of the United States during 30 years.
But Brainard was primarily a painter. His delicacy and wit flashed through oils, water-colours, collage and assemblage, and even splashed into theatre with set designs for The Baptism by LeRoi Jones, The General Returns from One Place to Another by Frank O'Hara, and the front curtain for a 1980 production of Eric Satie's Postcards. He exhibited at the Fischbach Gallery throughout the Seventies, and his work is represented in the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art; and the Special Collections of the University of California at San Diego.
One of my clearest memories of colour is a flower-picture by Brainard that hung just inside Elmslie's front door in Manhattan in the early Seventies. Nor can I lose the image of Joe, ill during the Eighties, catching up on his reading: a stack of books on one side of the bed being picked up, devoured, then placed on the other side to be taken by friends. I last saw him two years ago after a reading at the Poetry Project in the Bowery. Winter. A black overcoat. Later I heard he was drawing again. And a few months ago that he was dying. Over 20 years ago he wrote:
How far down
in the hole
must we go
before we lose the light?
not far at all;
we can lose the light
just by closing our eyes.
but, in closing our eyes we switch on the light of memory: and we remember.