Remembering Poet Kirby Doyle

Kirby Doyle & the Snows of Yesteryear by Michael McClure

       In 1958 Kirby Doyle’s menage on Sacramento Street, in a basement apartment of the no-man’s land between the wealthy on the Hill and the Black Fillmore District, had a Francois Villonesque air. Kirby lived there with gloriously beautiful, blond DiDi. Their space had the air of a gypsy hide-out: incense and candle smoke in the air, velvet drapes over low tables, a vase with peacock feathers, wall art by George Herms and Wallace Berman, dim lights, and tarot cards laid for a reading. Kirby was writing the only other novel I know of, besides On the Road, on a roll of telegraph paper. Kirby would fall back on the floor stretching out his big-boned, Irish body and roar with laughter at what he’d just typed, then take a hit of a joint, or disappear to shoot some crystal meth and come back with a small glass of wine for each of us.

       Kirby and DiDi were living the “real thing,” they were genuine and delighted small time thieves leading an esthetic and non-destructive life proceeding on the negative virtues of which Herbert Marcuse spoke. Kirby was writing Happiness Bastard on a roll like Kerouac, but Kirby went to the other extreme of Jack’s speed typing; Kirby typed slowly and in bursts. The novel that he wrote, before it was butchered by its publisher, was the most grotesque and hilarious novel I’d seen. It was rich and autobiographical, and each person had become a cartoon character, stranger than Daumier’s caricatures and more like “Lena the Hyena”, and the inventions of cartoonist Basil Wolverton. They were the opposites of Kirby and DiDi, and the absolutely attractive visitors who dropped by to smoke or gossip. Billy Jahrmarkt, who was Billy the Bat of the Batman Gallery, always dressed in black, would visit with his Grecian-looking wife Joan and his sister Susy. Sometimes I thought I’d never seen so much womanly grace in a small place. Everyone was set on being an artist, in living smoothly without creating damage, and creating a small community of glamorous people having the best time it was possible to have, while still being outlaws. I know it’s idealized but that space and the people in it were among the most idealized.

       We were all outlaws, and at the same time as innocent as baby ducks amidst the real social and political crimes of the Cold War. Everyone had their costume: Jarry Heiserman was one of the great dandies, each unique piece of clothing that he gathered for his costume that day had a story behind it. When Jarry handed you a tiny, scrawled drawing he’d done in colored pencil, resembling an Art Nouveau fantasy, it would be passed over in perfectly laundered, frayed-beyond-redemption white gloves. They somehow matched his hat, ancient tennis shoes, modest voice, and perfect hip diction.

       Lew Welch, red-haired, lanky, and best bro of Kirby’s would appear and announce that it was time for he and Kirby to write a “joint statement” for the poetry reading that night. Then they’d turn on and create an infamous proclamation containing a group of demands and threats, laughing their heads off as they composed it.

       Kirby was the gentle, human lion and pater familias of this scene which was as close to magic as anyone could get. His combination of gentleness, and a wit that was energetic, but not destructive was unique. There’s a saying about someone not having a mean bone in their body — and that fit Kirby. Sheer charm was the quality that did most to make him the master of his basement apartment whaling ship. Kirby was the captain and we were willing to be first mates. The gates of our sizable egos went lifting up and we were ready to appreciate each other for our uniqueness .

       I lived around the corner on Fillmore Street and visited Kirby a few times a week. It’s said that you can’t go home again, but I’d love to go back to Kirby’s home and lie on the pillows on the floor and drink a morning glass of wine again.

       As Francois Villon said:
       Ou sont les nieges d’antan?
                Where are the snows of yesteryear?

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I tried to convince Kirby that research proved there was serious central nervous system damage from intravenous methedrine use. Some hells of Kirby’s later life are contingent to addiction to his personal alchemy.

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Kirby Doyle, by Peter Coyote

       I lived with Kirby Doyle on and off for years, during the Sixties and Seventies, with the Thelin family at the Red House in Forest Knolls, and at the Olema commune. I remember him as clearly as a car-wreck, vivid, brimming with passion and danger, insightful as surprise, and tormented by the hypocrisy of living in a nominally Christian nation which violated its central tenets daily.

       We called him “Radio Doyle” in those days, because his ‘transmissions’ of insights, jeremaids, aras, and ephiphanies were like broadcasts from another realm — sudden, oracular, and indisputably true. I remember walking with him once in the breast-like hills of Olema, grasses sparkling in the hard light and rolling in waves under bursts of wind from the Northwest, when he stopped stock still, turned to me and said, “The grasses are maintaining the integrity of earth until we come to consciousness of it.”

       Kirby was like that. Often incommunicative, he would pass wraith-like through the chaotic communal rooms, sipping his coffee, oblivious to the tumult of children and too many adults in too small a space, smiling, and speaking to himself (or whoever might like to listen.) His mental life was prodigious, magnetic in the pull it exerted on his consciousness, drawing him, over the years, farther and farther from the rest of us. And yet, after dipping into spaces that only he could see and feel, Kirby would emerge, in sudden shock-clear focus, and offer crystalline excurses like this one, I remember perfectly thirty years later:

       “When man isolated the atom, the basic building block of creation, the sacred cellular orders of creation, he had two choices. He could have revered it as a mystery, worshiped it as a synechdoche for creation, or do what he did: split it. Enrico Fermi burned to death for his meddling, and the soil, air, and water have been polluted and corrupted ever since.”

       One might argue with the particulars, but Kirby’s fidelity to these insights which arrived randomly over his spinal telephone was absolute and sometimes awful. I encountered him once, after several years absence, preaching on a street-corner in San Rafael, bible in hand. This shaggy giant, with ham-sized fists, and wildly arrayed hair was imploring his fellow citizens to take the edicts of their expressed religion seriously. “Ahhhh, God, Kirby”, I thought. “Let them go. Let yourself go.” It was like seeing a man impaled on a hook in a butcher shop preaching to his tormentors, but he could not or would not relieve himself of this responsibility. His jacket was closed with safety pins, his white-button down shirt was filthy, the tail out, his eyes prised open by the pressure of what he struggled to convey. Nervous passers-by rolled off the edge of his force-field, arcing around him, eyes averted. I cut directly through it and saluted him. He was instantly ‘himself’ again. He greeted me in the sweetest of tones, the “Kirby” voice, on tap from the deepest well-springs of the Irish bardic tradition, the voice which could charm a man out of his weapons or a woman out her clothes. He stood there, breath heavy with exertion, stooped a bit to take my hand, the tattered remnant of a bow, and smiled broadly, glad and to see me. He appearred wearied by the task of reminding his fellow citizens of their Christian obligations, but resigned. He was obdurate, dedicated impassioned. We talked for a bit about his daughter and son, exchanged a few pleasantries and parted ways. It was the last time I saw him.

       Learning of his death is shocking. It is as if someone told me that a rent had appeared in the universe and he had been sucked through it, as it occasionally happens on an airplane when a window blows out. The pressure differential between inside and outside, sucks bodies from the warmth and certainty of an accepted reality into the awful emptiness of eternity. I carry Kirby in my memory today as a beacon of fidelity, a stand-up, authentic man, dedicated to art and kindness, tortured beyond bearing by his very qualities. He signals to me today through memory, through the flames, and I remember him fondly and honor his memory with a deep bow and a daily re-dedication to make my own writing come up to the bar that his established.

Mill Valley,
June 1, 2003

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       Very important for it to be known I think that after this period referred to by Peter Coyote in his brilliant little flashlight-in-the dark piece about Doyle – that Kirby collected himself (self-corrected like a gyroscope will) & came into San Francisco where he was to have published his first major collection of poems (Greenlight Press, 200pgs), three chapbooks from Deep Forest, and one from City Lights. He read widely, and penned his famous opus “PRE AMERICAN ODE” – as yet unpublished. He had managed to stay off all injectable drug use during these years, and ultimately alcohol was the culprit in his demise….That and the onset of diabetes. His brain had been permanently damaged though by his methamphetamine use earlier. One more note – Doyle’s drug use was clearly an attempt to “self-medicate” a severe mental illness. My educated guess – schizophrenia. I loved him dearly.

– T. Walden

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                 Mystic in the Wild State

for Kirby Doyle

      When last I saw you singing
In a faintly Swedish accent
On the edge of the bed  "Stringing
Invisible Gold Threads" you said,
I thought my heart would break with pain
& now,
            In the candlelight of early morning
            A poem being penned for you,
            And not the first --
                                One slow tear
                             running down my cheek
                          like a raindrop
                      (like wax running down
                   a sad candle)
– t. walden

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       Kirby Doyle’s work always startled me — like being fed lightning.
       I speak here for myself as well as for my husband John Thomas, because
often and in concert we would say: “Kirby Doyle is a poet of the first
intensity.”

– Philomene Long & John Thomas (in absentia)

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       Indeed, Kirby.

       What can a kid whom he immortalized say?

       Well, clearly, I didn’t know him well, although I had more interaction with him than I had with Richard Marley, whose recent passing started me thinking afresh on “those times.” He drank, and became even larger than he was, a bit too much for me, as, as it turns out, I secretly was something of a prude, and chicken, to boot. I believe I remember him coming around the ComCo pad and visiting, another hovering poet, like Brautigan, around the magic of H’lane, my exotic pard. Being, as I was, a sprite of 21 years, I didn’t have lots to offer conversationally, although I did manage to wax articulate on occasion as my comprehension of the full majesty of Digger thought grew. Mostly I beavered the machines.

       I certainly don’t remember much about Kirby in the context of Digger Batman’s birth; he was there and we DID blow some fine herb, but that event was WAY beyond my realm of experience at the time and I have little “memory” of those moments. My clearest recollection of Kirb was a night he rode into SF with me in the Army Truck, coming in from the Red House, probably 1968. The truck died momentarily near Corte Madera, and then, miraculously, restarted. “A momentary indisposition, I suspect,” opined Kirby, and the phrase has stuck with me all these years. Machine-guy meets poet guy, and in this field that arises betwixt, they find commonality in the recognition of the soul that machines sometimes manifest.

       I can’t remember if he ever got out to the Land or even more than a vague picture of what he looked like then. I HAVE been eternally grateful to him for his kind depiction of me in action; immortalized, as it were, by the mere chance that there was present a poet/ scribe/ witness…Unfortunately, I never got to thank him for that in person, so I have to say “Thank you, Kirby Doyle, for the gift of your presence and your witness, for your words and your being.”

       By the way, I happened to meet up with Digger Batman (Jahrmarkt) a few years ago back in Taos. This was at the home of Laurie Spiegle (Red-haired Laurie), the widow of Barry Spiegle, of the Lower East Side UAW/MF family who ran with Ben Eagle (Morea) out to New Mexico with that whole “bandito” crowd in 1970. I think it was Digger’s birthday, and we had never met. He very
graciously thanked me for my little part in his birth, which I thought was a nice closing of a circle. Kirby would have made a poem out of that incident also, he would have seen all those circles closing, circles he had helped cast out thirty years earlier.

       So, we def getting to that part where the actors start checking out, one by one, and we have more and more folks we keep alive in our memories. I never expected to get this far, quite frankly, I mean, I gotta get FALSE TEETH, f”crisake! cause my teeth are falling out and that attractive lady over there is my daughter’s age! and I look like a derelict when I smile. And the most amazing revelation: I’m not old, it’s just my body that’s getting old.

       It sure would be nice to be able to believe we get to go somewhere else when the body finally fails; such a seductive conceit. What a great party it would be, all those folks who aren’t here anymore there again getting together to compare rides…

– Claude Hayward

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Kirby Doyle links:

obituary, & announcement of memorial reading, San Francisco Chronicle, 05.14.03

Kirby Doyle page at Hammond Guthrie’s The Third Page: A Journal of Ongrowing Natures

Kirby Doyle’s “Ode to John Garfield”, published by the Diggers

“The Birth of Digger Batman” by Kirby Doyle, as published in The Digger Papers

photo of Billy Batman & Kirby Doyle by Chuck Gould, on the Diggers website

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Selected Bibliography:

PROSE AND POETRY. [n.p.]: [n.p.], 1960

EATS. [n.p.]: [n.p.], 1960

SAPPHOBONES. Kerhonkson, NY Poets Press, 1966

ANGEL FAINT. San Francisco, CA : Communication Company, 1968

HAPPINESS BASTARD. North Hollywood, CA: Essex House, 1968

HOW DO YOU WANT TO LIVE? San Francisco: [n.p.] 1973

THE COLLECTED POEMS OF KIRBY DOYLE. San Francisco: Greenlight Press, 1983

AFTER OLSON. Alexandria, VA: Deep Forest, 1984

THE QUESTLOCK: GYMNOPAEAN OF A. DIANAEI O’TAMAL. Alexandria, VA : Deep Forest, 1987

LYRIC POEMS. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1988

CRIME, JUSTICE, & TRAGEDY AND DAS ERDE PROFUNDUS. Alexandria, VA: Deep Forest, 1989

ANGEL FAINT. Alexandria, VA : Deep Forest, 1991

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About Denise Enck

Denise is a writer and editor of Empty Mirror. She has edited several literary magazines and her work has been published online and in print since the 1980s.

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