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Remembering Gerald Burns

Story and photographs © 2002 by JR Compton
llustrations by Gerald Burns

Images "not in show" are from JR's personal collection; the rest were photographed upstairs at Paperbacks Plus
or from Xeroxes Gerald gave me. The exhibition is up through April, at least, and is available for viewing upon request. Other Gerald Burns pages

Detail from May 1982 diary page
drawing of John Walker photograph

The complete page is explained here.

Gerld Burns' rendering of John Walker's photograph of Gerald in Walker's Clown White movie.The ghost of Gerald Burns is haunting me this week. Not in an evil way, but persistent. He's just in my consciousness so much more than last week, when I needed him. It's almost as if he's right in front of me every time I turn around these days. Open my eyes or close them. Every time I try to change the subject. He's still there.

Gerald Burns was likely the best poet Dallas ever saw, as well as a prolific artist, illustrator, literary and art critic. On Sunday evening March 17 -- it was Gerald's birthday -- Robert Trammell's WordSpace literary organization celebrated the exhibition of David Searcy's collection of Gerald's drawings upstairs at Paperbacks Plus in Lakewood.I was one of four guys who knew Gerald well enough to share some of our experiences with an audience of about 35.

I spent the week before trying to think what I should say, hoping for a small audience, wracking my brain for anecdotes and generally dreading talking in public. All that time, I couldn't see Gerald, at all. Intellectually, I knew I should contextualize him as a fellow human, an amazing artist and a poet.

During the twenty years it was printed on paper, Dallas Arts Revue published many of his illustrations and about a dozen of his shorter, more visually oriented poems. His longer poems still escape me. I mean, who could keep track of a poem that's deliberately 1,776 lines long? I still struggle with a 25-line work I read as part of my presentation.

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 Untitled Gerald Burns many pencils drawing

not in show

from DARts #18,
February 1986

   

Emotionally, while I was preparing for my talk, he was remote. I couldn't even remember what he looked like. Instead of a real human friend, I could only imagine an intellectual construct of veiled memories.

Until Bob Trammell showed his videotaped interview, I'd forgot Gerald's banjo and singing. David Searcy's video of an old 8mm movie of Gerald performing in a darkened garage solidified my memory of his prestidigitation.

When he was alive and around, Gerald was always very real, a gift, a joy to be around, an amazing presence. He was an astounding conversationalist, knowing in many divergent realms, and willing to slip from one to another mid-sentence, mid-phrase, in a constant stream.

continues below

WordSpace presents Gerald Burns - Drawings, Objects, Poetry with presentaions by David Searcy, Robert Trammell, Jerry Kelley and JR Compton at Paperbacks Plus March 17, 2002

That's David Searcy seated in the middle of this photo by JR Compton jrc photos

Informally shown videos by the food table were followed by an almost informal presentation in the comfortable room beyond, big cushy and folding chairs arrayed around a lectern. Trammell briefly biographed Gerald in a dense history I wish I had a copy of. I did my thing, then Jerry Kelly read notes. Finally, David Searcy, lately a recipient in prose of the same NEA prize Gerald got for poetry in the late 80s, mesmerized the crowd with late correspondence between him and Gerald.

Patty Turner watchingsmall photo of Kathy looking at Gerald Burns drawings mounted on the wall upstairs at Paperbacks Plus in DallasThe exhibition itself is amazing. Not for the quality exactly. There are few of Gerald's best there, perhaps because publishers kept losing the originals. "10 yrs of drawings still lost by Little, Brown, Boston. "Gee, uh, we're not usually that careless." " Gerald bemoaned in a letter.

But Searcy is to be commended for sharing. I wouldn't have ( except here ). Couldn't afford to mount even my few originals, would be affraid to lose any. Most of Gerald's distributed work is in Xerox. I used to drive him to copy shops, and we shared tech data. All the work at Paperbacks Plus is original. If you look at them through a magnifying lens, as Searcy and I have, you can see where the lines cross. Copies splatter lines slightly and you can't see layering.

Paperbacks Plus was a great place, as Gerald reminded me in a recently discovered letter in which he worried about offending Trammell for wanting to read at P+ instead of the Dallas Institute: "You meet a better class of people at Paperbacks Plus, " he confided.


Gerald Burns drawing of Ceramic Casket (Real Bulbs)

Like his poetry, conversations with Gerald Burns were dense, thickly layered, intelligent and fascinating. He was almost always alert, aware, and, especially for someone who was almost always near penury, amazingly generous.

In the late 80s I and a girlfriend needed something special to wear for an upcoming party. We mentioned it in passing to Gerald, and he immediately offered us use of his two purple tuxes. I mean, who has two purple tuxes?

He was the clown in John Walker's acclaimed independent film, Clown White, and Gerald was also an accomplished magician -- which is how he worked his way through Harvard. He had also worked in a small, traveling circus, where he cleaned up after the elephants and got the lions to go into the ring. Hence the purple tuxes.

He was also one of my and DARts' best cheerleaders ever. A personal provocateur. He is, for stirling example, directly responsible for SSiT (Small Sculpture in Texas) a book of my stories of 3-D art in Texas. He invented the idea, named it, designed a simple drawing for the cover and he wrote the foreword for it. I procrastinated it for more than a decade, and finally published it online. I've always felt I failed him in that.

"Do hang on. All will be well shortly. Really it will. I like DARts Rev as a tabloid. Can I write and draw for it?.... The Strathmore Revue's splendid to handle -- I must grieve that there's only 200 of it -- that the city supports no larger issue.... You're absolutely wonderful to continue the Arts Revue as you have, and I hope SMU archives it complete for Local History... Your last issue's superb -- very moving, all heart and weight...."

he wrote in various letters over the years.
 

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Gerald Burns' painting, Time to Elect Another Dummy

not in show.

oil on browning cardboard,
painted for the tabloid during the protests against
the 1984 Republican National Convention here

 

He's haunting me, because I said he was crazy, among all the other nice and/or true things I said about him as I sweat buckets in front of that literate audience upstairs at the bookstore. And, like all three other guys standing at the podium that evening, my hands shook uncontrollably as I spoke.

If, as David Bromberg has written and sung, "you've got to suffer if you're going to sing the blues," then it only makes sense that if you're going to write poetry, you've got to experience. Everything. The joys, the awfuls, the everything elses. I know Gerald soared -- we used to watch the passing clouds together. And I'm likewise sure he plumented. I have dark letters and poems from him admitting it.

Oh, he had issues, and I'm not at all sure he dealt with them adequately, except through his poetry. I vividly remember him insisting that poetry could not be about feelings. "Nobody cares what you feel," fellow Harvard classmate Jerry Kelly read from notes from a long-ago Gerald Burns poetry class to the Paperbacks Plus crowd. I've always thought we was wrong about that, though I didn't argue. I always just sort of assumed he was a little loopy about some things.

I told the audience about his loud, pealing, inappropriately crazed laugh that often frightened and embarrassed me. But I uttered the word crazy aloud. About a dead friend who was always kind to me, positive, supportive. Gentle.

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Gerald Burns' Mechanische Maus drawing   not in show

He was, of course. Which is probably why he got fired from teaching jobs, and why he died quietly, they say, in his sleep somewhere in Michigan, where he was born, where he had gone to help his mother, after working the lunch shift washing dishes at an Arby's in Portland, after splitting from his wife Clio. Searcy kept saying that "his big heart burst." But I wish I hadn't said it.

I'd been careful not to plan my talk very explicitly. My public speakings always go better if I don't really know what I'm going to say, then just wing it. I had a scribbled page of notes, starting with the odd coincidence that the last time I'd stood there, in that room, I'd read a letter I'd written to Gerald when he asked about our mutual friend Georgia Stafford's death and funeral.

I related how Roxy's wife, Judy Gordon, had rushed from the room during a graphic description. That I'd had to wait till she got back so I could finish the story, and I hoped nobody'd go rushing out this time.

I told about the purple tuxes, how he was my friend and we looked at a lot of art together. That DARts had published his poetry and dozens of his illustrations. About Small Sculpture in Texas, now on the web along with the glowing Foreword he wrote for it, and a Gerald Burns painting of me creating a Dallas Arts Kazoo for KNON FM that's in my collection and a page of drawings. And that he and then wife Clio were the official art critics for The Austin American Statesman.

Then I carefully read two visual poems I'd published in DARts. I'd practiced two others -- and muttered to the crowd how little I liked people reading other people's poems without practicing. I don't know if I explained how completely different --alien to my tongue and mind -- Gerald's ways of speaking through his poetry was from my own rhythms and flow, but I did note his layered density. Then I proved it.

Note the uncharacteristically short lines. Gerald loved long lines and the runovers they created. In the longer poems below, they'll wrap to the right, although typographer that he was, he often wrapped them to the right. I'm not sure he'd approve the way different window sizes and monitor resolutions render them online.
 

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Gerald Burns' carved head for ventriloquist doll

Carved head for
ventriloquist doll

Air & Angels

If interest is a kind of liking
may dullness be prior to perception
in a sense? instinctive glaze
brushed on by the censor
to keep us from seeing void?
This relates
to the problem of the frame
the pedestal
on which we place the can of soup
(a pointing with import)
Know Ye that the dull
ends here
proof enough the mind is active
or else who wouldn't prefer the margin
to the poem? except the painter friend
who years ago taught me to see
interstices
the space between the dancer's legs
the air between the leaves
hello Degas, Daumier,
your edges
love each other; hello
papa Charlot
your angels, as in St. Thomas
are where they act

 

As I read his words aloud they made no sense to me. That often happens when I read favorite poems to other people. Sweat pouring off my face, filling my glasses till it was hard to read. But I only tripped over the words twice. I only read two of his poems, and it turned out no one else that evening read any, so I was glad I had.

I'd planned to say that I think Gerald's poetry should be read alone, quietly to oneself. Studied. My degree in English Literature from the University of Dallas taught me that all poetry should be read aloud, but Gerald's words defy this convention. Maybe a voice actor could get the complexity of words and phrasings and sentence structures and line endings right. It was probably easy for Gerald. But it was a struggle for me.

The first poem I read was from Texas Arts Revue. Whole number six, from 1981. When it was full magazine sized and printed in ink. I held up the two issues I'd brought to read from, in both form factors. The first poem was from his then new, Salt Lick Press volume called Boccherini's Minuet, mostly devoted to an eponymous 36 pager that baffled me. But I liked this short piece. Quick, direct, simple and visual.
 

Gerald's drawing of a galloping red Pegasus graced two Pegasus show invitations -- the original The Flying Red Horse Show and D-Art's first exhibition, The Red Flying Horse Show, both were produced by Bob Trammell & Alison Kraft.

This one was in the Great Court on the 2nd floor of City Hall with a reception following at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.

not in show

The Flying Red Horse Show invitation


 

Gerald had four poems in the other issue I brought -- a much smaller format, desktop published. Ten years later, DARts #32. Longer, denser poems on pebbled gray paper. Gerald would have noted the minute, recycled confetti patterns. On the barely lilac cover was Frank X Tolbert's Spanish, a 1990 graphite and charcoal drawing, part of the works Gerald discusses intimately in this poem. About art and mutual friends. Called Tolbert's Galveston Period, although Frank and Ann have since moved there.

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Tolbert's Galveston Period

Frank's pieces, more 7 x 10 than 8 it seemed, quite horizontal charcoal murals,
expensive paper pushpinned to the Binder Gallery wall, tell you that crosses like
squigglehandled daggers are articles of impalement, the crosses themselves often
with a nail through, that and its shadow holding wood together, sometimes
a severed hand (jagged, almost pinking-shears ripped) holding a pencil or brush,
what they're in water or femaleness of liquid. One with three crosses impaling pools
ferociously black and white as a Motherwell remark on Spain has behind and hence between
the crosses pretty, curly happy waves Clio says are typical of Galveston, no
men of war immediately recognizable albeit setups for his draughtsmanlich rendering.
There are monkeys in the 7th Dream (a red dot in the catalogue shows is sold), one of the crosses
on a wall behind has a palette on it, drawn not installed, the charcoal (laid on dark
in "Loose Lips Sink Ships") doing all of it except a thin squiggle Ann says looks like white pencil
up dark tunnels with an eye at the end and one called "E.W.," blobby paws and cat head like a stuffed
valentine in front hence "facing" a fish head, fried drumstick and a bird head and bit of body
rendered like Mexican pottery has these things displayed around or in front of a mountain like dishmoulded
hamburger, the effect like Close Encounters's butte, spiked round things in the sky, left, lines like a map's
crisscrossed extending around it lightly through everything so I asked and it's the cat itself (Ethel Waters)
under a quilt, which I forget at once looking at it, handling of blacks, whites, space all there is,
cruciform dream pain so flatly there as a Guston ceiling bulb's tau switch, water in another pulled up at the
side to a spike, and in "Loose Lips," top of a mountain far right a bowl gushing up, peacock fountain and those
silly happy waves you don't quite trust behind the crosses which after all are stuck in some liquid but in their drawing are
as innocent as Ronald McDonald, these dreams may be corrupt, invasive but still human dreams, not that the
artist has suffered for us or himself but that these "images" may be redeemed from their urgent insistency by being
written down, gone down an arm (male is a hand, female is legs) so even the roving spy eyes are part of a landscape
that is, each, honestly a landscape rendered with its quality of light, depth, enclosedness or not, quilts in a way,
everything sewn down on a sheet big enough for any bed, "E.W." smaller, cat's dream of food made Frank's made our made it, Frank-made.

  

Next in that thick issue, past some art crit and in the midst of a long sci-fi story, was Yellowbird's In Ildefonso. I'd carefully practiced reading it aloud, knew its pitfalls and line endings, not quite by heart. It was about a piece he'd seen and needed to draw. And though it was not one of my favorites, it was vividly visual, thus perfect for this magazine.

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 Gerald Burns drawing of Yellowbird bear pot

not in show -

from DARts #32 -
summer 1991

     

Yellowbird's In Ildefonso
 
paintbrush in hand, red-tipped, applied
thin liquid glaze to the off-ivory buff
pot he was working on and showed us how
you rub it with an agate (his with a long extension,
tape-wrapped) to get the shiny finish
on his flaring conical-based necked vase
with a lid, two blobby bears walking
not at all like krater handles on the edge
or rim where the neck begins curving in
these bears, one per side, one walking toward
you, one away. A flat lid has on it
triumphantly, as on a monument, a third.
He had (he showed us) a round pot he
built full around, a closed globe his thumb
pressed in the top of, explaining to us the bear
is healer, tutelary deity, as he meditated toward Black Mesa
saw the pot as that - butte from the road
spectrally dark against brush-dotted lighter
sharper hills, saw or felt the pot, in his hands,
as the mesa. Another hollow pot fell on its side;
picking it up he saw it as a bear. The limbs
press to a ridge transverse to spine he first
noticed in his dog, bang-on for bear anatomy
and now he's this pot, scooping in in an
Ildefonsan way to simplest neck, the clay just curving
at the edge of air, this with a lid on, plop
with bear, too grand to be a handle or a finial
yet friendly (and the top not heavy at all,
hollow, he said) so you've this black pot
or covered vase, polished with sandpaper and agate
the bear, in a sense one bear, making a circuit
finished at the top, the mouth slightly open, all
their eyes just dimpled in, black from being packed
with dried cow chips to pull out oxygen
from the red glaze in exchange for carbon
to blacken bears, and lid, and bear.

 

 

If I'd got on a roll -- captured the audience, knew it, and defied my fears and sweat, I'd hoped to read his Surrealism at Menil. I'm not sure now if we went there together, although I vividly remember many others of our traipses after art and, especially, sculpture -- especially an outdoor TSA show all over Austin.

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JR Gerald Burns drawing of JR being greeted enthusiastically by a dragon, the species of whom JR collectsNot in show

 

Surrealism at Menil

is a dozen Cornell boxes including homages à ballet and the renaissance pinball, broken
panes; all frames ached to have been found, exhibiting themselves like faces in Dante's
hell's lambent light, blue or pale peach-rose liquids in apothecary bottles never green or bright yellow,
specimens always white, tinted by pickle. In an adjacent chamber nail fetishes, very good ones,
stood (vertically if little men) furred with nails bigheaded and bent, a few blades, rusted to one
tone like Gillettes in a built-in motel tile slot. We frame it all as art, Magritte's "Pipe" and the big Ernst
King Crab chessplayer faux primitif but antlered in strong front light, giving you the choice
of ignoring the shadows on his thin chest. White rooms with tile, set of white tiled
things, industrielle, a nice de Kooning Attic study and a big one in the hall wet smears of madder making
at their thinnest pink, in general opaque vs. transparent paint a kind of theme
as in a way Magritte's bronze trunk and ax, folding coffin in chaise longue prepared you
like a baptistry or confession boxes for Cornell lorgnette studies so much the scale
and materials of one's glasses through which we peer at boxed frame windows
in mouse blue velour through which a book or book-shape wrapped in dark-blue velvet, tied
in powder-blue twine knotted to rectangles takes up the box space under tiny mirrored twin.
Oh yes, if we'd seen a fire extinguisher on any wall it would have been art, the urinal
nearly, hard to find on Sul Ross as the building itself, vertical pale boards like a Christo
mock-illusive matchboard look-in floor, charming as de Chirico tea biscuits in front of stuff.

Gerald Burns drawing of himself cutting and pasting art
Gerald Burns in action - informal self-portrait - JR Compton Collection

There was one more poem in that, special, literary issue I'd thought about reading. But I hadn't practiced it, and I didn't relate all that well with its characters, though, as often in Gerald's poetry, I loved some of his phrasing and recognized several Texas places and poetry and graphic art rags along the way.

After winning the $20,000 NEA grant Gerald and Clio blew it all in Europe, then settled in Thompson, Connecticut. As Gerald explained in a letter from there on May 26, 1987, "Charlotte Whaley sent me a clipping saying (once again -- and so'd you in your last Revue's Prefactory) saying (a) I got a grant, and (b) blew town. The reasons had nothing to do with art. But I did notice that publishers started answering my letters when they came from Connecticut. But the journalists wrong us who say Dallas expatriates go off for money or recognition. We just go away. I miss the people I love in Dallas, Austin and San Antonio dreadfully, and it is a question what it means to go away, from that."

He continued, "Since the poems I do tend to be long it's odd to be between them." At the bottom he said, "This is my hello to your hello, and geewhiz Dallas newspapers, while it's nice to be cited, even as an 'Orrible Hinstance, I wish you could do it without implying I'm a cultural carpetbagger."

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Gerald Burns drawing of himself standing atop a car covered by snow, Off to Thompson if possibleThompson, Connecticut, in deep snow

 

Old Shapes Revisited

Cambridge ladies taste like turpentine. The old creative writing school, workshop courses
would "give" you besides the word give these exercises, write (Sylvia) a poem
about those sheep, making them archetypal, on nonarchival Big Chief pads you bring to class
reserved like holy plate for this, a coffee ring, well you could print that on a napkin
to make it more "imaginative," this year's Blue Star gallery invitation dripping consequents, slit
here, here, cut sections folded parallel, handful of leaves die-cut, and this is their imagination, that
as you unfold it falls apart. Isuzu fires a good ad agency because (perhaps) having been consulted
it comes to think it knows. Voting feels like making. Each of them writing a
word or two got us Exquisite Corpse, the critical act after the fact appreciative as the adjective
enshrined like the bottle shape the board went for. We're paying always for the means
to achieve design. Well maybe a door opens in its stomach isn't as gripping as
the dog in Secret Agent yapping at the door, thumbprint left by crumbling Egyptian flax.
What kind of bridge (Edison's carbonized thread) does inference leap across?
Some huddles of words suggest they have been chosen on a principle, the sow's ear with cello,
Chaplin's serried lights meant to be a train's windows perfectly adequate. Our instinct
creates wholes, care, selection, from forest or a heap of pebbles, makes urban experience
a poem about a bridge, the scarlet I you wonder where she got the thread for.
Wind goes through the dandelion, severs petals. Poets write poems on napkins, and
what if Rauschenberg, sketching out a thing, got interested in ballpoint spreading wet through fibers?
Subjects give us hints, shake loose a limb to shake with as if students let loose in the Baptist
parking lot photograph each other, take off their clothes to make piles of cloth, shoepolish
ink a means of escape, descriptions of the faery lands forlorn from holograms of casements, nah, not
voting or simpleminded reconstruction but Marcel, saying "What would happen if we did without
spatial metaphor here, at all?" to an empty lecture hall, the students in the streets with Sartre
persuading them their minds were interesting from what occurred inside. Rats in the street could be
rearranged with bits of brick to be Delacroix's Spirit of Liberty, the rats standing for bodies,
hence pure, conceptual, no longer rats. Imagination's up on the roof, waving its tail - at least
that period's hadn't decided how to handle gasoline (our posters tired Leger according to Print).
Blazier raids a whole issue of U&LC to make a collage called Plot because the word's incorporated,
wondering if he did a T-shirt run could they sue. Actually he said would they, a more interesting question
wired in parallel to the practical. Today we compared Barbie and the Little Mermaid anatomically,
the one's slip-on tail flukes horizontal as Moby-Dick's, her undulations consequently horizontal.
Imagination, far from being a wrinkle on a thing, can even be Raphael's boring trick
of making it like everyone else's, a bit better, the British garden spade imported rather than
the bronze frog handle on your garden faucet, whatever this might feel like through your flowered glove
or if the potholder instead of a fish were shaped like Husserl's mailbox.

 

 Gerald Burns drawing of man raking leaves next to an abstract sculpture

T 
he last time I saw Gerald involves another deep regret. He and Clio had moved to Austin so she could attend law school at UT, where I visited their crowded little apartment full of tiny, yapping dogs they loved to distraction. We went to a big dog show, and by evening, when I was about to leave, he suddenly remembered that one of his poems had been included in New American Writing, and he was keen to show me.

They couldn't find a copy at home, so Gerald went out into the night to find one. Apparently, Austin 7-11s sell poetry annuals. He returned with it, signed and gave it to me, despite my protests. They were near poverty and could not possibly afford a $20 book, but they insisted and I took it with me, always since wishing I'd parked it in their mailbox, on the porch or something, anything. I didn't want to be ungrateful, but ...

 

The one, other thing I'd hoped to relate that somber evening at Paperbacks Plus, but I completely forgot, was that I first learned that Gerald Burns died in July of 1998, from Andrei Cordrescu's regular short feature on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. At first I couldn't believe it was the same guy. Then I remembered Gerald's poetry and literary criticism had often been published in Cordrescu's Exquisite Corpse.

 

Gerald Burns drawing and collage of More WolvesNot in show.

 

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Story and photographs © 2002 by J R Compton
Illustrations Copyright Gerald Burns.
His drawing were rarely dated.

All Rights Reserved. It is illegal to
reproduce these pages in any medium,
but it's perfectly fine to distribute our URL.

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