...and don't miss
Poems and Prose by Philomene and John
Last Days of John Thomas
The Beats: an Existential Comedy
Eavesdropping on the Boardwalk
Gas House beat HQ
Of her I had only had the tiniest sliver, the most miniature facet: an e-mail correspondence about shared interests. She was a lot of other people's Philomene, to a much greater extent and in very many ways - wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, neighbor, teacher, filmmaker, mentor, guru, Poet Laureate of Venice, keeper of the flame of memory, Queen of Bohemia, and living national treasure. She was one of those people where you say, "They broke the mold…" Of the Beats, one of those small enclaves of like-minded geniuses who inspire whole subsequent generations, she was almost the last remnant. Others knew a different Philomene Long. All I can speak of, selfishly and from a limited perspective, is the Philomene who was mine. I never even met her. "What right do I have to cry?" I ask myself. "Quit being a drama queen," I tell myself. Yet people cried for JFK and Dr. King and Princess Di. They too were iconic figures who represented something large and significant.
Blessed Are the Beat
What Philomene represents is the art life. Many fine people refuse to succumb to the prevailing culture. Fewer women than men hold out for the art life, whatever the reasons may be. (The most obvious: women are more likely to suffer involuntary poverty, than be free to choose it.) Refusal to conform requires great courage, much more so for a woman. For their very scarcity, I admire the women rebels more. Who can explain or justify the art life, where relationships (including those with the self and the numinous eternal) are placed before all else? In the art life, when you encounter something or someone you can love, you drop all other considerations of wealth, status, public opinion, success, convenience, security or cost, and surrender.
The art life is a subculture that never dies; it only mutates through the centuries, showing up as Bloomsbury in one era and place, resurfacing as Beat in another time and setting. All incarnations of the art life have in common the principles of dedicated poverty, and salvation through creativity. As John Thomas phrased it, he never made a living from writing - just a life.
Hard-core adherents of the art life simply won't get on board the mainstream boat. According to conventional wisdom, their personal lives are messes. Their mission is to find the gold within the dross, the classical tragedy within the soap opera, the transcendent beauty available only to visionaries. We're all in the gutter, as Oscar Wilde remarked, but those in the art life are looking at the stars. On the connection between beat and beatitude, Philomene quoted Kerouac quoting the Bible: "Blessed are you, when men shall revile you and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely. Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad, for so persecuted were the prophets that were before you."
In the art life, one's greatest work of art is always one's self.
Mutual Admiration Society
I'd rather my project be known by one artist I respect than by a thousand anonymous clicks. Philomene Long not only knew my project, but grokked it - what a rush! Toward the end of 2004, she wrote me about Virtual Venice with such a nice compliment, I wanted to quote it in the publicity. Knowing that, she spiffed and polished the line a bit.
In the following months she sent poems, reminiscences, pictures and suggestions. Eventually we ended up with three different pages about the inextricably intertwined lives and works of John Thomas and herself. Somebody once called Philomene a "creative dominatrix." If so, I was a willing slave, happy to move things around, change titles, put quotations in, take paragraphs out, make design changes, whatever. She was invariably sweet and appreciative of not only those pages, but other parts of the project too; and endlessly patient with my questions, and with the disagreements between our computers. Her compliments about everything I sent were gracious and lavish - this is the type of pen-pal I like!
Once I learned that Philomene would actually look at my stuff and take the trouble to comment on it, I was shameless about sending her links. She praised a piece about Wanda Coleman. When my appreciation of Stuart Perkoff was finished, her stamp of approval was almost the most valued compliment I was ever given as a writer. I sent her one of my books, which she got through enough of to know that it starts with a police encounter. She called it "a smashing beginning!" and went on to say, "Funny. John began the first chapter of his Beat Paradise book with a Venice cop scene. What does this mean?" (Great minds think alike, is what I hope it means.) I sent her the link to an interview where I'd answered a question about fame with, "Actually, there are only about half a dozen people I want to be famous to." Philomene's comment: "I love this." At the end, when the interviewer asked, "Would you like to have the last word?" the answer was, "No." Philomene's comment: "I love this even more!"
She was a great audience and a superb mentor. For anyone with an eccentric project, this kind of support is extremely validating, and with Philomene the rewards were bountiful. When I apologized for asking so many questions she wrote, "Never hesitate to bother me." So I branched out from her immediate circle and asked, about Venice people and history, a slew of questions whose answers sometimes came as a shock.
One subject wasn't even Venice-related, except it occurred way back when I lived there. The coolest local radio station once broadcast the entirety of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, with dozens of readers, including some very well-known actors. My own life was pretty complicated at the time, so I only heard a bit of it, and cherished a hope that some day it would be available on tape. I'd remembered Philomene's name in connection with the project, and when I mentioned it, I had the feeling she was impressed and/or flattered. Good!
Cosmic Lovers Pre-Assigned
John Thomas was greatly loved and emulated by many people, with his biggest fans found among those who knew him best - not always the case, where fans are concerned. He advocated "release, escape, realization, enlightenment, satori…" As he said, and those in the art life attest, this event is "the only important event in the world." One should aspire to "know no fear, no anxiety, no ambition, no hate, no greed or envy…no shame, no modesty, no pride." The art life is for those who are smothered by routine. John Thomas recommends the way of the holy fool: "When he is hungry he eats; when he is sleepy he goes to sleep." Sounds easy, doesn't it? Until you try.
John died in 2002, and Philomene said "Our love erodes time", which is pretty intense. (She didn't write that to me, I read it somewhere else. Though you probably won't learn elsewhere that John called her a "monkey fingers" on the computer). Their love story is extensively told in other places. It's enough to say they found each other late in life and made the most of it. They even got married, which is pretty freakin' radical, and I say that without sarcasm. In one note to Philomene I explored the differences between widowhood and being dumped. She wrote, "Actually - I cannot use that word "widow" for I - in my reality - am not. We remain alive, together…" Brave talk.
I think she endured the kind of loneliness that has no meaningful correlation to how many people are around, or anything within their power to do. That aloneness can sometimes be reduced by friends, family, even strangers - but never assuaged, because only one person can cure it, and he's not there.
At the close of 2004, Philomene asked me to add "Thomas" to all instances of her name on the website. She'd been thinking about it for two years. "Last night the decision arrived on reading these lines from a sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning," she wrote, and included the relevant quotation. (In the art life, people tend to decide things based on poems, tarot cards, dreams, moon phases, I Ching, and the like.) Later on she reconsidered again, and we went to using both the married and single versions of her name.
God Hates Cripples
Philomene was mainly concerned with paying tribute to John, but she also honored the memory of Stuart Perkoff, a poet who had somehow escaped me. My great gift from her was the knowledge of him. She mentioned looking for the print or negative of a photo of Stuart's wall, taken less than a month before he died. "A crazy Venice woman came into his pad screaming "Get up, Stuart! Get up! GOD HATES CRIPPLES." Stuart leaned over and wrote "GOD HATES CRIPPLES" and then "GIVE ME SOME SLACK" on his wall." That was a Beat thing, writing on walls. Serendipitously, I ran across a picture of Huang Xiang, standing before a wall which he'd covered with his poetry, and sent it onward to Philomene. She liked it.
Stuart (who died way before she got together with John) once told Philomene, "The easiest thing I've ever done was to love you." After reading Stuart Perkoff's poetry and biography, I was confused about the various women in his life, and thought certain poems were written for one lover, when actually they were written for another. Neither one was Philomene, but she carefully explained each woman's unique place in Stuart's world. She wanted them recognized and respected for themselves and their significance to him: a strange and rare form of generosity.
All Possible Resurrections
As literary correspondences go, this one was splendid. We touched on such subjects as Vanessa Bell ("interesting sex life," noted Philomene). Amidst some high-concept girl- talk she commented: "By the way, the chemical rushing through the blood stream of the one in love is the same chemical found rushing when one is about to commit murder."
She would throw in an occasional observation on the state of the nation: "…during this time when it seems that soon our children will have to look up the word "freedom" in the dictionary…" A self-described Zen Catholic, she once sent a request about one of the web pages: "May I ask that you remove that 'former nun.' It is most definitely a part of my bio -- but on a short piece such as this (and in these more recent Christian Right times) it jolted me -- somehow made me feel responsible for the entire Catholic Church, pope and all." She noted a source of genealogical pride: "My ancestor not only signed, but delivered -- actually placed the Magna Carta in the hands of King John in 1215."
Once I asked if anyone had recorded or filmed an event she was to have participated in that day, according to a flyer I'd received. She was startled to learn of the event, which she hadn't shown up at, not having heard of it from the organizer. At various times Philomene mentioned contending with a broken phone, an un-cooperative computer, and a swarm of gnats. In early 2005 there were several mentions of pain and difficulty using an arm that had been injured when moving a heavy object. Then, some kind of leg sprain. There was talk of sickness in June of this year.
I wrote that I'd memorized considerable poetry as a kid, especially to recite while having my teeth drilled without anesthetic (the dentist believed children don't have pain nerves). This delighted her - my technique, not the dentist's. "What joy this story brings me - that you memorized poems…as pain killers."
I told her my ex and I were married by Rev. Bob Alexander, a prominent Venice figure. She wrote "I was 'ordained' by him in 1974. He arrived at my door at 7:00 in the morning saying he had a dream in which: 'The Father told me to ordain you.'"
I generally ended e-mails, "Best of all possible regards," and Philomene played often with permutations and elaborations of that phrase. On the anniversary of John's death, her sign-off was, "All possible resurrections to you!"
John Thomas, Five Years Gone
Early 2007 found Philomene putting together a memorial for John, following Kerouac's concept of "spontanicity." She called for art, music, and riffing on the words "John Thomas is…", to create "the Zen accident."
John was well over six feet, and more than 300 pounds. "I don't get high," he said, "I get wide." A recently-created mural in a Venice eatery includes, with many other local luminaries, John Thomas. He's holding a paper with his words, "Don't get hung up on anything, stand above, pass on and be free." Although the face is lovely, Philomene confided, the skimpy body of John is not, because he was "an enormous man." She intended to ask the artist to give John more flesh and, in the interim, asked me to remove the little image of the caricature from a Virtual Venice page.
Around this time, she sent a link to a film of herself and John at their last poetry reading, with also some footage of Philomene saying goodbye to John's coffin. The video was made by her sister Pegarty Long whom, in one of those strange foreshadowings that life serves up, I briefly met many years ago when we were both night shift float nurses at UCLA Hospital. Pegarty said then that the sisters were making a film called The Beats: An Existential Comedy (which had a theatrical release after premiering at the Fox Venice Theater).
Philomene reckoned John's death anniversary by the church calendar, not the secular one. On April 6, I sent some words of commiseration to which she replied, "It has been the most desperate of Good Fridays - no - not one of - the most of all."
Not long after, I ran across a news item online and learned that John Thomas had died in the custody of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, having been denied adequate medical care. In his long-ago former life as John Thomas Idlet, he lived in Baltimore and had another family. Accused of something that either did or didn't happen, decades ago, he pleaded "no contest" and was sentenced to four months imprisonment. Over 70, with a heart condition, on prescription medications, he survived less than three weeks of jail. That someone died in the county hospital after being taken there much too late, was not a surprise. It happens often. That this revered poet had a dark episode in his past, was a surprise.
Forgiveness is, of course, a tenet of Christianity; so vital it's in the Lord's Prayer, itself a fairly widespread example of a certain kind of poetry. But even good Christians find themselves asking: "Remind me, again, of why I should forgive the bastards?" One answer, of course, is that in this area, God needs our help. That's how God gets the work done, here on earth. When we use our hands to create or heal, we let the good deed be done, through us, by loaning our hands to a being who has none. And, since God's nature is to forgive, we are also needed in that department, to accomplish any forgiving that needs to be done. You don't have to be a theologian to know the great virtue of forgiveness includes the concept of a clean slate.
Maybe John Thomas once did something inappropriate or even downright bad. And who among us hasn't? Other scenarios could involve revenge, jealousy, false memory, purposefully implanted false memory, and numerous other factors. So, years after whatever he did or didn't do, he was taken away to begin dying, in a lonely and comfortless place.
My first reaction was to go back and look at the things Philomene wrote about his death. To read "Last Conversation" and "Pieta in a Los Angeles Mortuary" juxtaposed with the L. A. Times account of those same days, is to understand what the beating crimson heart of poetry is all about. Start with some ugly reality, throw out the ugliness, keep the truth, and voila - poetry! That's one way to do it, anyhow.
Philomene loved John, and that's all I need to know. About "The Holy Fool" she said, "John appears to have become what he was writing about in 1959." I thought at the time she meant being a Zen monk, but maybe there was an echo of another part of that essay: "…your world has become a huge jail, a diabolical prison complete with all the most scientific instruments of torture."
The news article appeared five years after John's death because there was news: The county had to pay Philomene a truckload of damages. She had filed a civil lawsuit on John's behalf, lost the first round, appealed, and finally was awarded a settlement. I don't know if she lived long enough to collect a penny. This, too, is the art life: if any material riches happen to arrive, they're usually too late to be of much use.
I think this dates from mid-June. I'd written, "I hope things are going well in your world." Philomene replied,"I have entered a new - not page, not chapter - but new book in my life. After five years of deep mourning, I have been released from intolerable pain. Not that it will ever go completely away, but now tolerable enough for me to begin work on his manuscripts - which I am doing simultaneously. My love for my husband expands."
"…a great light lost from world, and at such a dark time."
That's actually Philomene's line - she said it about another writer who died, and now I say it about her. I'm grateful I was able to give her web pages for her lost loves. Now it will be a page about Philomene. One e-mail, not long ago, began, "May I still call you "dear" after this final? request." And actually, it was the final request. Adding some words to a page was the last change to Virtual Venice I'll be making at Philomene's suggestion. After this, I'm on my own.
The only correspondence we had since then was about a memorial book - yes, that was the subject of the last words we exchanged. In life or death, irony is never far away. It lurks always in the wings, and waits for a chance to drop its sly jests. I learned a computer program to make eBooks with pages that turn, and quickly adopted it as my primary art form. One of my first projects in this new medium was Panel 45W Line 48, a memorial book for a soldier whose name is carved on the Vietnam Wall. Since I'd worked so extensively with Philomene on commemorating Stuart and John, I was wildly anxious to show her this eBook, feeling that, of all people, she would appreciate it. A few messages back and forth established that, of all my correspondents, Philomene was the only one whose computer couldn't view a project made with my favorite program. This was just a few weeks ago, and I made a note to send her the memorial book on a CD, so if she happened to visit someone with a more up-to-date computer, she might someday actually get to see it. Well, that's not gonna happen. My petty disappointment, the frustration of an artist thwarted of the chance to show a piece of work to another artist, is a tiny drop in the ocean of grief which pours forth and gathers momentum as word of Philomene's departure spreads.
After weeping, I dragged myself around for a while, accomplished nothing useful, and finally went to sleep. And had one of those dreams.
There's a certain variety of dream, so rare I've had fewer than ten of them. This kind of dream features a particular person - a dead friend, or somebody I haven't seen in thirty years, or even someone I've never met on the physical plane. There's no way to verbalize this without sounding like a terminally corny, nauseatingly sentimental, mush-brained New Age nut, so I'll go ahead and do it anyway. This type of dream delivers an absolute conviction of the person's presence, along with a radiant mix of bright emotions: warmth, connection, laughter, reconciliation, empathy, beneficence, acceptance, etc. etc. - all the positive feelings that ever flowed between that person and myself, distilled into an essence. It can be tactile, but it's not the same as an erotic dream. Let's call it an ecstatic visitation dream.
I woke up grokking. The dream came as a reminder that Philomene didn't only leave this place, she also went somewhere - to the place of being reunited with John. The dream sensation of my missing person's tangible aura, no matter how overwhelming, must be a paltry, puny thing compared with the reunion of Philomene and John. For that, who could be sad?
Friday, 7 December
Join us in a memorial tribute to the great Venice Poet Laureate PHILOMENE LONG, who passed unexpectedly this August 21st. Prolific author, poet, and muse, Long defined the Venice spark. In addition to being partner to Venice West legend Stuart Perkoff, then longtime wife and partner to poet John Thomas, she was a worldwide Beat luminary for books including American Zen Bones: Maezumi Roshi Stories, and The California Mission Poems. Her Book of Sleep, Bukowski in the Bathtub, and The Ghosts of Venice West were written with John Thomas. Her own poetry collections are The Queen of Bohemia and Cold Eye Burning (both Lummox), and her films include The Beats: An Existential Comedy. Join family, friends, and some of Los Angeles's most noted, poets, writers, actors and artists for this tribute to the writer, poet, filmmaker, and friend who will live forever as the symbol of Venice and the Queen of Bohemia.
photos: Pegarty Long
© 2004 - 2012 Pat Hartman