When he was pushing thirty, Artie Gold began writing Romantic Words. He thought so highly of the manuscript that he called the book that came before it before Romantic Words.
For a number of odd reasons, Romantic Words never made it into print during Artie’s lifetime. Publishing became difficult and drugs became easy. That’s one way to tell it. There are a multitude of other ways. Long story short, when Artie died at the age of sixty in 2007, Romantic Words remained unpublished.
Endre Farkas and I discussed cobbling together a version of it and including it in The Collected Books of Artie Gold (2010). But we really didn’t have very much to go on. The manuscript was “lost.” In 2012 or 2013, Patrick Hutchinson, who was going through Artie’s papers to organize them for McGill University, found two version of Romantic Words in the literary papers. By 2015 or 2016, Endre, as Artie’s literary executor, had decided to ask George Bowering to edit Romantic Words. And so begins our tale.
By 2018, George had declined the job. He still had too much of his own writing left to do. I toyed with the idea of editing the book myself, and then declined the job too. It was going to be a tough, problematic edit, and I still had too much of my own writing left to do as well.
The pandemic arrives in 2020 and all of life changes. Late in the year, Endre and I hear from George—he’s working on Romantic Words. But he is not editing it—he is collaborating with it. In the life confusion that was plaguing us all, he had put on his writer’s hat, not his editor’s hat.
In this version of Romantic Words/Ruby Wounds, Artie gets the first page and George gets the second. And what George has going on his page is many things. Sometimes it is commentary. Sometimes it is revision. Sometimes it is translation. Sometimes it is a wholesale rewrite. Sometimes it is a moment in awe.
George’s openness as a reader/writer/editor/friend/fanboy allows many things to transpire. It’s a curious book, and there is a genuine dialogue happening between the Artie poems and the George poems. What the reader sees happening is certainly some version of admiration, affection and love.
think the big question isn’t: why does this project exist? I think the big
question is: why don’t we have more books like this? As it stands, it is unique
in our literature, in our realm of writing.
Fencing, tennis—the metaphors are there for the back and forth the book produces. Artie, George, Artie, George—it’s an atmosphere of engagement and, occasionally, friendly competition. Sometimes George seeks to explain Artie. Other times he simply says, This is the way I’d do it, and here it is—done.
When Artie was working on Romantic Words, Joe Rosenblatt asked him for poems for Jewish Dialog. Artie sent him a batch of poems (as he was prone to do) and Joe selected the poems he wanted. When the issue came out there were all of these R.W. poems with numbers. I am guessing that was Artie's idea, but it might have been Joe's.
Artie gave me a copy of Jewish Dialog (he had spares) and I started flipping through it, saw all of the numbered R.W.s. "Ah, I get it," I said, "R.W.--Romantic Words."
also Ruby Wounds," Artie said.
"Ruby Wounds?" I asked.
Artie then started telling me about Frank O'Hara's poem "Ode To Willem De Kooning." I looked puzzled, as I often was when Artie was philosophizing about poetry. "Just read it when you get home," he said, and moved along to another life topic, probably involving food.
I got home I opened up my copy of The Collected Poems Of Frank O'Hara and
found the poem. It's one of those wandering odes of O'Hara's where he is trying
to show that he can do Abstract Expressionism in words. The payoff for
"ruby wounds" comes at the end of the poem:
A bus crashes into a milk truck
and the girl goes skating up the avenue
with streaming hair
roaring through fluttering newspapers
and their Athenian contradictions
for democracy is joined
with stunning collapsible savages, all natural and relaxed and free
as the day zooms into space and only
darkness lights our lives,
with few flags flaming, imperishable courage and the gentle will
which is the individual dawn of genius rising from its bed
"maybe they're wounds, but maybe
they are rubies"
each painful as a sun
To be interested in poetry means, I think, to be willingly engaged in a certain kind of verbal difficulty. I say this as a poet who started out trying to be extremely accessible. But there is something in the abstruseness of a Margaret Avison or an Artie Gold that calls one to a different kind of mission. George loves engaging with that, when poetry threatens to start speaking in tongues. And when, at the age of twenty-four, I met Artie and started reading his poetry, it was something I really had to get used to.
Artie Gold is, by no means, an easy-to-read poet. He deploys vast elements of Surrealism—often. And his syntax is often programmed to confound the most astute grammarian. There are verbal tangles throughout his work. And there are numerous places to get lost in the hopes of being found, in the hope of poetry giving the reader that state of grace that only poetry can deliver.
At times, in this collaborative Romantic Words, Bowering seems quite content and happy to play second violin. He isn’t contesting the poetic space with Artie as much as he is commenting upon Gold’s negotiation of it. At times there is an opportunity to redirect the energy flow, or offer an older and wiser perspective on things (Bowering is eighty-five years old as he is working on the manuscript). George reconfigures some poems on his page as an act of generosity. Occasionally he illustrates a flaw. But he also bows to the flawless when it occurs, which is often. Sometimes only for a sequence of lines, sometimes for an entire startling poem (see R.W. 6)
There are times when I do, in fact, prefer “George’s version”—he has a lifetime of craft and crafting behind him. Sometimes Artie’s poems sputter—like Elmer Fudd trying to talk when he’s excited about something. At these times, George, as an astute reader, a gifted writer, can show a bewildered reader where the poem was trying to go.
There’s something almost arcane about poetry if you are doing it right. It’s shot through with mystery, and its moments of bright clarity are often totally mysterious. This is a great project for me as a reader. It takes me right down into the commas.
In the late 1970s, I knew Romantic Words/Ruby Wounds as a unified working manuscript. I knew it as something that was up for revision. And then, years later, I knew it as a mythic manuscript that had been lost and then was found in Artie’s papers. What it’s now become both mystifies and pleases me.
Under George’s hand, Romantic Words has been divided in two and multiplied by two and has quite possibly entered the realm of works such as After Lorca and Heads of the Town Up to the Aether. It used to be a friend of mine’s poetry manuscript. Now it’s become something else and something totally unique.
June 16, 2023
Ken Norris was born in New York City in 1951. He came to Canada in the early 1970s, to escape Nixon-era America and to pursue his graduate education. He completed an M.A. at Concordia University and a Ph.D. in Canadian Literature at McGill University. He became a Canadian citizen in 1985. Norris is Professor Emeritus at the University of Maine, where he taught Canadian Literature and Creative Writing for thirty-three years. His latest chapbook, Echoes, recently appeared from above/ground press. He currently resides in Toronto.