PART ONE, PORTLAND
Walt calls me up. “Anne, there’s a reading at Powell’s tonight. Do you want to go?” Hazel Hall was an invalid who wrote tiny jewel-like poems about the clothes she embroidered for rich people. She wrote poems about the people she saw walking past her window, about the sound of rain, about the sight of her own hands in moonlight. I want to hear her poems like I want a hole in the head. But I say yes. We get there and Walt, walking with his characteristic weave, escorts me to the only two empty seats. Walt’s unsteady walk is present all the time, making it difficult to tell when he is drunk and when he isn’t. As if in recognition of the confusion this can create, he occasionally produces a clarifying statement, such as “I’m drunk”, whenever this does happen to be the case. That he is able to state this fact without guilt or defiance, without self-pity or implied invitation – this is one of the Seven Wonders of Walt Curtis. Walt pulls a copy of the new Hazel Hall anthology from his pocket and silently underlines for me the lines which are his favorites with his thumb. One poem is coming at me from the podium, another one is being presented to me as a personal present by Walt. I see that the readers defer to Walt in their body language, and I am puzzled as to why this should be the case. True, Walt is a poet, but several other writers so identified are gathered in that room. I know this, since Walt whispers this information to me when they rise to read. Finally one of the readers, a young woman, thanks Walt directly for introducing her to Hall’s work. As the evening progresses, other speakers repeat her tribute. Hall died in 1924, and was completely forgotten when Walt picked up one of her books from a dusty box in Goodwill. It was Walt, I learn, who, by writing about her, speaking about her, and advocating for the memorial which now stands in front of her house, inspired the renaissance of interest which resulted in the book which led to this reading. It is Walt, who does not teach writing (as does one reader), nor seek tenure (as does the editor of the anthology), nor write plays (what the young woman who thanked him does – she wrote one about Hall), who brought us all here tonight. I have learned to let Walt drag me places.
Walt calls me up. “There’s an opening night party at Mark Woolley Gallery. Do you want to go?” I get there before he does. I wander from painting to painting. They are on black velvet, or what the gallery notes call “the luminous velvet painting medium”. All are portraits of the Black Velvet Woman. Arnold Pander loves the Black Velvet Woman, and paints her with a reverential respect. You know the tradition as well as I do. The Black Velvet Woman’s black velvet flesh is separated from the black velvet universe in which she eternally floats only by a thin glowing line of paint. She is always naked. She always has a slightly hungry expression on her face. Her nipples stick up but she is never cold. Illuminated by moonlight, she waits for you to come to her. But I know I am putting off what I really came to see. I brace myself and enter the second room.
I enter just as Marne Lucas, the other artist in the show, and the first known pornographer I have ever wittingly laid eyes upon, clatters past me. She is in her early thirties, and the first thing I notice about her is that she looks tired. She is an established erotic photographer, a career she pursues in tandem with her work as a model for fetish magazines, but she has never shown in a gallery before, so she is everywhere – introducing people and being hugged.
The last thing I expect of a pin up model is exhaustion. I know how women look in men’s magazines look – like soft, firm gumdrops.
They look out at you with trusting expressions, seemingly unaware that their clothes are in the process of becoming, right before your eyes, much too small for them. Really naughty pictures are of girls who look like they know what is going on. But most wear the same expression you see on a freshly baked cake. I knew instinctively, even at age ten, going through my brother’s Playboy magazines, that the virginal bakery cake girls were the ones to emulate. In real life, where the proportion seemed to be the exact inverse of what was portrayed in my brother’s magazines, it was the innocent ones who were in short supply. I hoped someday to number myself among them. I harbored the dream that one day I would find a gumdrop in the mirror looking back at me. Secretly, I despaired of ever becoming that innocent. I was already regularly reading the Playboy sex advice column. I read about the insatiability of women, in particular I read about the hazards of too much oral sex (“be careful, she may become dependent on it”). I was rapidly becoming as world weary as Marlene Dietrich. Who ever heard of an exhausted gumdrop? And yet here, thirty six years later, was the first professional gumdrop I ever saw in person, and that is exactly how she looked.
THINGS THAT GROW
by Hazel Hall
I like things with roots that know the earth,
Trees whose feet, nimble and brown,
Wander around in the house of their birth
Until they learn, by growing down,
To build with branches in the air;
Ivy-vines that have known the loam
And over trellis and rustic stair,
Or old grey houses, love to roam;
And flowers pushing vehement heads,
like flames from fire’s hidden glow,
through the seething soil in garden beds.
Yet I, who am forbidden to know
the feel of the earth, once thought to make
Singing out of the heart’s old cry?
Untaught by the earth how could I wake
The shining interest of the sky?
PART TWO, WILLIAMSBURG
My friend Andy takes me to a party in East Williamsburg in Brooklyn. We arrive with Andy’s nerves already shot because the group of twentysomethings we travelled with felt compelled to discuss, a bit too loudly for Andy’s taste, their (white) impressions of the (black) housing project through which they had to pass. The loft is packed. The entertainment begins. A woman takes the stage.
She is naked. She blows up a sex doll, and begins having rough abusive sex with it, taking the role of the man. Her boyfriend sits in the front row, radiating pleasure. After this, a couple takes the stage. The woman is covered with balloons. She plays toreador, as her husband, on all fours, plays the bull, popping the balloons using his horns. Now she is naked. He continues to charge her. She stabs him and stabs him with her picador, until she draws blood.
“Real blood?“ I whisper to Andy, incredulous. I regard these party game playing twentysomethings as hopelessly, frighteningly decadent. I regard them all as trapped inside the house, watching life through a glass. They are so young. Why are they so lecherous?
PART THREE, PORTLAND
There is no question that Lucas’ photographs are sexy. They are designed to reach inside your pants and turn you on, and they do. The defining rule of engagement in porn is that the act of photography is itself a type of sex, with the camera an ever ready, ever busy, ever curious phallus. Of course this is true in other types of photography as well, but in pornography it is overt. The model sees the camera, the convention goes, and what she wants to do is come. As I walk around Mark Woolley Gallery, I see Lucas’ work falls well within this rule. In the gallery notes she writes that she uses porn ”as a platform for sexual narrative detailing tension and arousal” and she does this, but without recourse to several standard porn conventions, a feat similar to building an atom bomb without uranium. She takes the idea of mystery, so fundamental to the Black Velvet Woman’s allure, and throws it out the window. She shoots, for the most part, without using a flash. She uses, for the most part, totally recognizeable locations. She is not interested in turning her models into idealized icons of desire. The whole idea of sneaking a forbidden look, so fundamental to the appeal of bakery cake gumdrops, is completely absent. Lucas’ women fully realize a) they are undressed b) they are being photographed. It is impossible to leer at them. At least one or two of them have been caught in the act of leering at themselves.
Walt finally arrives. He is instantly swallowed up by the many other people in the gallery who are just as glad to see him as I am. Walking six feet in front of Walt is his tiny imperious girlfriend Marjorie, and her consort, a Guatemalan girl. Marjorie knows that Walt hangs out with me, and she chooses to ignore me as she sweeps by. She nods in response to my hello, but basically, to Marjorie, I do not exist. I like this about her. Walt has told me that Marjorie is his girl, and I like that he has one, especially one as terrifying regal as this. I watch for her reaction as she passes Lucas’ photographs (of young women minus their undies, tying up their fetish boots, quietly contemplating their own arousal) since she at one time worked as a stripper. In Alaska, Walt tells me in a protective, confidential tone, as if that explains everything. It does. Portland women do this. Courtney Love stripped in Alaska before stripping in Japan. But Marjorie barely glances at the pictures of naked and semi-naked women. She moves straight to the bar.
In one photograph, a young woman stands beside an extremely expensive car. She is fully dressed and looking down at the hood of the car where she has gently rested the end of the fake penis she has on. In another, a young woman holds the yogic pose of the Tortoise. All we see is her naked, serene, moon-like bottom. Her high heels are crossed beneath her. I like this one best. Walt likes the one with the penis. He is gay, or identifies himself as gay. In PECKERNECK POET, the documentary Bill Plympton made about Walt, Marjorie is one of the women who surround him as he reads a poem about his horror of being forced to have sex with them. After the poem, Marjorie grabs him for a kiss, which he returns. She says to the camera “He’s not gay.” I am fascinated by Walt’s multiple lives.
Walt’s poetry has two subjects: nature and sex. No one writes about the celestial quality of Portland cloudscapes like Walt (although Gus Van Sant has photographed them), or the oversaturated fecundity of the forests, or the mild spiritual temperament of the mountains. Walt writes about cows, about geese, about carrots growing in his garden. He also writes about his own erections, and the people who inspire them.
I wait on the sidewalk outside Mark Woolley Gallery, thinking over the exhibit. At one point, a stunning blonde girl entered the room. I watch her scan the crowd, oblivious that all eyes are turned upon her. I have seen this happen before. Once a young woman got on the subway who was so beautiful everyone dropped all pretense at protocol and openly gaped. Before this miraculous apparition, we fell to our collective knees. It was a group decision. She modestly studied her own lap for the entire length of her ride. Another time I saw a beautiful woman make her way (OK, she was being escorted by Alec Baldwin) into a crowded New York movie theater. We parted for her instinctively. I remember thinking “Now that’s a beautiful woman!” even though all I saw was her hair, fanned out across a bulky winter coat. If a woman is beautiful enough, you do this. You get out of her way. You don’t do it because she is Kim Basinger, you do it because some part of you, over which you have no sovereignty, has crowned her Queen of Heaven. Marne Lucas runs to the young woman and they embrace, in a flurry of elbows. Walt appears at my side, admiring the new arrival. “Isn’t she gorgeous? I’d like to be her agent.” he says to me with admirable honesty and uncharacteristic greed.
It is tribute to the great beauty of Lucas’ little sister that Walt would say something so unlike himself. Walt, no slouch himself in the photographic good looks department, doesn’t even bother to sell his own books. He gives them away, as if they were zucchinis. Once I received a horrified note from him reminding me that I should have asked five dollars for copies of hisbook, Mala Noche, which I sold my class in preparation for his visit. That’s one third of the price the publisher listed on the back cover. He wrote that in ignoring these instructions and collecting full price, I had offended him deeply. He wanted everyone to have a book. He instructed me to pay each student back, and included the cash with which to do it.
Marne Lucas’ step-father stands, drink in hand, looking pleased, proud and a little uncomfortable. We learn Marne Lucas’ little sister is a freshman at Portland State, and that she recently made the soccer team. Henk Pander, Arnold’s father, joins us, and as I stand between them, I cannot escape the feeling, that I have suddenly stepped from a porn gallery into a PTA meeting.
Vincente Guzman Orozco arrives, throwing off his jacket as he makes his entrance. I query him about his reaction to the show. “Oh,” he says, flashing an enormous smile and drawing tiny circles around his own nipples, “I find it very titillating.”
PART FOUR, PORTLAND
If there is one thing Portland is good at, it is producing people who take one step back and examine sex as part of their professional lives. This is the town where Ursula Le Guin stayed home smoking her pipe and writing THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS while her husband worked needlepoint. This is the town where Sallie Tisdale wrote TALK DIRTY TO ME, where Callie Khouri wrote THELMA & LOUISE. This is the town where Chuck Palaniuk wrote FIGHT CLUB, Larry Colton wrote GOAT BROTHERS, and Gus Van Sant wrote MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO.
I am sitting in a Church of Christ Scientist temple, now converted to a children’s theater, listening to Susie Bright answer questions from the audience after giving a cheerful talk about the importance of recognizing the individuality of your own sexual fantasies. The first question from the floor was “Aren’t you a lesbian anymore?” She forthrightly admits to living with a man, and adds that categories are slippery. The second question was “Do you think it is possible for someone to have sexual relationships which are ongoing, loving, and committed, with more than one person at a time?” This one stumps her only briefly. She starts to answer it in the affirmative, but cautions that she has never seen it last. Immediately hands shoot up, and various groups of Portlanders identify themselves as involved in long term happily polyamorous relationships. I see Susie Bright’s jaw drop. I see the thought racing across her mind: am I in another time zone? The question is: is it ahead? Or behind?
Walt is across the street from Mark Woolley Gallery, trying to retrieve two Russian immigrant teenage boys from the garage where they work. I am on the sidewalk waiting for him to give up. He thinks they should see the show. He explains this to one boy, who goes to get the other. The other boy comes, and Walt explains it to him. He goes to get his father. Walt knows the father, knows the whole family. While I wait, I am talking with a friend of Walt’s who is sitting on a bench outside the gallery. Walt had greeted him joyfully, telling him he looked awfully healthy. “Why wouldn’t I be?”, the man said, making the motion as if he was pumping iron. “I just got out.” He tells Walt the State of Oregon recently pulled the plug on an experimental co-ed prison. I asked him “So, was it different?” “Completely different.” he said. “All the guys are walking around lovesick. No one wants to get out.”
For sheer multiplicity of utopian vision, there is nothing like life in Oregon. In Oregon, a person deeply intrigued by the idea of men and women behind bars together can make it happen. Oregon is a place where you can take a chance. You can try something out. Marne Lucas was deeply intrigued by the idea that a woman could be photographed aroused by her own fantasies. If you want to see female sexuality, why look at pictures documenting male fantasies? If you want a close look at Eve, why cover her up with fig leaves? Lucas proposes to take you straight to the Garden. She pours the new wine of empowerment in the old wineskin of pornography. Why not? She can make it happen. Someone in Oregon thought it would be a good idea to open a 24 hour coin-operated Church of Elvis. Someone in Oregon thought it would be a good idea to be able to vote without leaving your house. Someone in Oregon thought it would be a good idea if the patient retained final authority in the decision to prolong or end life. Someone in Oregon thought running shoes could be improved if you stuck them very briefly into a waffle iron. There is something in the sleepiness of life in Oregon which makes the dream of utopia so strong that once it overtakes a person it must be acted upon. Either that, I think darkly to myself, clutching onto my responsibilities as a skeptical visiting New Yorker, or the awareness of evil, supplying the dark background we have always needed to in order to see things clearly, has atrophied.
PART FIVE, PORTLAND
It is raining and Bob forgot his umbrella. He is rattled. We are having breakfast at a delicatessen in Northwest Portland. I like Bob, and once offered myself to him as a girlfriend. He turned me down flat, and we soldiered on as friends. He arrived in Portland years ago, a gentle Jesus with a pony tail who built geodesic domes. Now he is a judge. This morning Bob is upset by three things: the umbrella he doesn’t have, the allergy medicine he left at home, and the distressing number of young women he sees who are unacquainted with the most basic precepts of feminism. He is upset that a young woman we both know has responded to a unplanned pregnancy by marrying the father, who she just met. She is preparing for motherhood. When you enter Bob’s apartment, the first thing you see is the framed certificate of appreciation from the National Abortion Rights Action League for the years of service he gave as president of the local chapter.
Bob is from the East Coast where the idea is to wait and have children when you are ready for them. In Oregon we don’t do this. This is one thing that hasn’t changed in the twenty-two years I have been away, raising my native born Oregonian daughter to be a New Yorker. In Portland young women are still forging ahead and having babies they are not in the least bit ready for. They marry the fathers, or not. Later they will divorce them, or not. The baby is the thing. A baby on the hip is an advertisement of safe passage through late adolescence. We don’t give birth out of defiance; it is not that calculated. We do it as part of our exploration of our bodies. We don’t do it because we need love; we do it because we’re curious, we want to be strong, intuitive women at peace with our bodies, and we can’t be stopped. I don’t expect Bob to understand this, so I don’t try to explain it to him. Instead I listen as he explains why he is upset by the young woman’s decision. He feels cheated. I ask him why. He says he worked hard to give women freedom to choose. I say “Do you hear what you just said? Freedom to choose? You’re trying to choose for her!” Controlling a temper I have never seen before, he says “What – I’m not supposed to have a stake in this? Those were years out of my life. Years! For what?” “Bitches, cunts and whores.” I respond, helpfully. “Fuck you” he says, standing up and throwing down his napkin.
Walt finally returns from his errand across the street from the gallery. He is beaming, half-crazed with delight. “Do you see that?! I know those people. I know them! They used to have nothing!” He stops marveling at the garage owning Russian immigrants long enough to say goodbye to Eric Edwards, the cinematographer, who he didn’t get a chance to see inside the gallery. Eric tells Walt he is hard to get ahold of, something I know to be true from my own experience, and Walt profusely promises to look into getting an email address. Then Eric is gone and Walt turns back to me. He is calmer now, but still preoccupied with the success of the family across the street. He had met them years ago when their paths crossed in thrift stores where they were always looking for furniture and he was scouting books. At that time, they were newly arrived in this country. The boys, now grown, were then small. Walt shakes his head, amazed. “It’s the American dream. Right there! Look at it!” I have heard this tone of voice before. It is the one he usually uses to order me to look at the moon. I tell him I am going home. He is not listening. “Anne” he says, “our country is very great. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”
I am surprised to hear him say this. I have long thought Oregonians, who live in a region dominated by the continent’s second largest river, an absolute Amazon of biological abundance, to be somewhat less American than the rest of the country. In Oregon, life comes from decay, from different stages of death. Trees fall and the forest consumes them. Salmon return to give birth, and upon so doing, gasp their last. The result of this endless and grand wheel of destruction: more trees and more fish. There is no death; it is never over; it is always about to begin again. Oregon is the place where death can’t only kill you once, it can kill you over and over and over again. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness take place against this larger backdrop. This is what makes Oregonians open to trying new ideas. They are open to failure. Why? Because it doesn’t exist. Its never going to stop raining.
by Walt Curtis
Naked boy is on a spiritual trip.
He rides the backs of red
spawning fish, acrobat of water
and air. The river runs forever;
salmon will return again and again.
The hook of the crescent moon
invites danger on the journey.
Salmon boy’ll be reborn.
He is me.
This is from an unpublished article I wrote about my return to Portland in 2000. I publish it here in honor of Walt Curtis’ 69th birthday.