“I wrote my memoir at the request of my sweetheart Sam, who said he wanted to ‘know all.’ My original intent was to laud my/our Beat poet friends and teachers from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics circa 1980ish, yet as my betrothal to Sam progressed to consummation and fleeting homelessness, my book became more about lauding the bliss of romantic, loverly love. Loving my sweetheart through thick and thin is a priceless pearl I keep.
In the spirit of veracity, I place my memoir online for free to readers. (Initially contracted to Dynasty Press in London, I stipulated author proceeds were for the Ginsberg Estate. Now there won’t be any lucre for the Estate, but Friendship and Love are writ down, for my Ginsberg pals and my bebe wondrous, Sam.)” –Alison Winfield-Burns
The author gratefully acknowledges a grant from PEN America (with supporting letters from Sam Kashner and Gerry Nicosia); Alison also thanks Columbia University and the Princeton Club of New York. XXOX.
This excerpt contains Chapter 1 and the beginning of Chapter 2.
Honeybee Panties & Literary Laudanum: The Jack Kerouac School(girl) of Disembodied Poetics
“My lord, he hath importun’d me with love
In honourable fashion.
And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord,
With almost all the holy vows of Heaven.”
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, William Shakespeare, 1600
To the glorious boys poetic—Sam Kashner, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Jack Kerouac, and Lucien Carr. To the Jazz artists Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Vic Dickenson, Gerry Mulligan, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, and Bix Beiderbecke. For my Columbia University doves Lambish Winfield (2002-2008) and Gigi Winfield (2005-2010) who enjoyed great music.
1. Painting Naked
Reader Road Map: 2016. Current Events: Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton battle amid a reportedly corrupt Democratic process for presidential nomination; tycoon Donald Trump conquers the Republican Party. News Topics: NASA’s Juno mission orbits Jupiter for a close-up.
I like dancing in cotton socks. The waxed wooden floor of my riverfront studio is great for ballet: slide back onto heels, lift toes, and rotate into a first position. Lift; kiss the toe onto the floor and back. Dégagé, piqué and close. Socks create good glide, but I paint barefoot. I need a solid foundation, at least while I hold a paintbrush, and I’ve got a clutch of five or six of them in both hands. Mayhap I should state upfront that my natural personality remains trusting, candid and candied. The closest I can describe myself is to say that I am alive to my environment with an excitement one customarily sees reserved for a child. An artist impassioned.
When my cell phone rings, I stop everything for my consummated betrothed.
“It’s sad,” Jake Seuss says many times. “It’s sad.”
“You lied about me to everybody,” I acknowledge his conduct has not been sterling, “to cover your own misdeeds.” Is my lady killer sweetheart sad he lied or sad I might be going back again to Rome to enter a cloister? I wish he were not sad at all. And I don’t care about sterling conduct. I like him just the way he is: exquisite.
Jake Seuss is a nickname for the boy I love. He is a journalist for a magazine, writing about Hollywood. That’s his life now, but he was previously a poet.
In 2010, Jake Seuss had urged me, “Please don’t stop loving me the way I love you.”
“I can’t stop loving you. Haven’t you noticed?”
Our hearts had fastened like magnets the minute we clapped eyes as early 1980’s students of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg at Naropa Institute’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, in Boulder, Colorado. I was a teenager and Jake Seuss was in his twenties.
Poetics faculty member Larry Fagin cautioned us not to fall in love, but Fagin may as well have tried to dissuade Romeo and Juliet. Jake Seuss used to stand in the street outside my Boulder bedroom window, shouting, “Juliet!” Better than Brando calling for Stella in Streetcar Named Desire.
Fagin had warned, “If you two ever get together, it will be a disaster.” Fagin said our white-hot personalities would vaporize if we united. Was he ever right!
In 2011, thirty years later, the sexual consummation of my betrothal to Jake Seuss ignited a chaotic stellar supernova that catapulted me into two years of homelessness and now we’re spread far and wide like atomic stardust. Yet instead of sorrow, I feel joy. Loving Jake Seuss is the best decision I ever made. We forgive each other easily, as do little children.
Jake Seuss has lily hands, soft as petals, with splints in his fingers (from a 1970’s motorcycle crash). I think he’s cooler than Fonda in Easy Rider. “You make me so happy!” I say with girlish gusto into the phone, after Jake Seuss runs out of breath about the sadness of life. He thrills me. In my eyes, he is perfect.
I value the essence of everything. My enthusiasms would make great television commercials. I transform things into the best they can be, like the studio where I paint along the Hudson River in New York’s Hudson Valley.
It was dingy when I arrived from Manhattan: a damaged airbed, abandoned by previous residents (repaired with globs of ugly glue that stained the bedroom’s carpet); black mold in the kitchen cabinets; the studio’s grand windows blocked by air conditioners and dirty, plastic shades; a bathroom in need of scrubbing. Packages of dusty condoms (that I thought were roach traps) atop the bathroom mirror vanity lights. I’d never encountered a real-life condom, packaged or otherwise. I scoured everything and made the place radiant with paintings. I picked wild roses and completed a portrait of Oscar Wilde in crushed blue velvet (now in the Permanent Collection of Manhattan’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Lesbian and Gay Art).
I treasure the inner beauty of Jake Seuss. With me, he is a boy re-born, destined to walk on water in feat after feat of noble delights. I think life is harder for males. Men have many fetters. Females seem more able to act according to the heart.
“I will be fired, Alison!” he once said (if anybody knew we were engaged to wed). “I would have nothing.” Did he mean money and Hollywood? You’d have me, I thought, recalling the words of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet upon discovering Ophelia, his sweetheart, dead: “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers with not all their quantity of love make up my sum.”
“When you close your eyes, you can see me,” I say softly to Jake Seuss, tenderly holding my cell phone.
“Yessss.” His voice slices into my heart.
I live alone. The studio has high ceilings. A banistered stair leads to a loft with three walk-in closets and a bathroom. A stuffed white lambkin is my pillow in the Heidi-like, lofted bedroom. Below is my dance floor and painting romper. The building was once an 1800’s saloon peopled with gunslingers and prostitutes.
When first engaged to Jake Seuss, I rented an apartment and art studio in Harlem, near Manhattan’s Apollo Theatre, up the street from Columbia University.
I have two Columbia undergraduate degrees. Originally a Visual Arts major, I became a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) research fellow, majoring in astronomy (but taking astrophysics coursework), earning a Bachelor of Science. My first NASA science project was at New York’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), where in 2002, I mapped sea-ice motion in the Arctic using satellite data from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The GISS scientist who’d hired me suddenly obtained a grant in Europe, deserting me on my first day of research (my birthday, May 23rd). “Read the software manual,” he said, “and fax me a copy of my graduate degree to the address I send you. Someone will check on you while I’m gone. Water the geraniums on the windowsill of my office.”
JPL’s Arctic ice satellite data had never before been downloaded. My work was the first attempt. When the GISS scientist returned from Europe, academic papers were written, implementing my original work, but without mention of me. I was a sophomore at Columbia and the only math or science class I’d taken was a hardcore introductory course (CS1007) for Computer Science majors, “Designed to fail people like you,” my professor said, meaning arts students. In 2004 and 2007, I was awarded research grants at JPL to investigate the atmospheric dynamics of Jupiter and Saturn and to work on a comet-lander spacecraft design.
I was a physics graduate student, right up until the bottom fell out of the US economy in 2008 and jobs seemed to vanish from planet Earth. I had faced near-constant gender and age discrimination in academia and I decided I didn’t want to be bullied anymore; I’d return to my artistic roots.
Then Jake Seuss reappeared, to my everlasting bliss.
I was to be included in the five-year anniversary march of the Class of 2005 for Columbia University’s 2010 Commencement. May. Springtime. I wore handmade Der Dau riding boots and a blue cap and gown with golden tassels. Immediately prior to the ceremony, Jake Seuss and I emailed one another about having lunch at a place called the Monkey Bar in midtown Manhattan. It rained all during Commencement and my academic cap got soaked, but I looked forward to the sunny sight of Jake Seuss in the flesh.
Six years later in my Hudson Valley studio, I can hear crickets chirp at night. I’m telling Jake Seuss all about it over the phone. In daytime, green-billed ducks quack up and down the marina’s gangplank, beneath my windows. Men sit on decks of small yachts, drinking martinis or beer and shooting a ‘salty dog’ breeze. Cruise ships boom a single-noted foghorn in maritime tradition. I wish Jake Seuss could see the view. Sunlight sparkles across water to the lazy sound of slapping waves against tethered boats. When I arrived some months ago from Manhattan, an entourage of ten boats arrested general attention: a flotilla carried James Bond actor Daniel Craig in advance of the theatrical release of Spectre.
I thrive in my Hudson Valley studio, fifty yards from the water’s edge. Private yachts and commercial cruisers dock, disgorging tourists. People dine at a Zagat-rated eatery next door that serves potato gnocchi, clam linguine, roasted eggplant, sautéed broccoli rabe, freshly caught fish, and good wines in large, long-stemmed goblets. I prefer to eat at home. I’m a gourmet cook. I learned cooking arts as a young girl in Rome where I studied to become a nun. I never had a lover (except Jake Seuss) because I planned to be a nun like my godmother abbess. It was in Europe where I learned to make Parisian sauces and Mediterranean delicacies.
I had told Jake Seuss gaily, when we betrothed our hearts as one in 2010, “I plan to keep a formal household.” I meant he’d be treated to every domestic luxury in the fashion of Old World monarchs.
Most of the things I own in the Hudson Valley studio I originally gathered to set up housekeeping with Jake Seuss; a chair painted blue. A bone china teapot and lead Fabergé crystal. Antique lace table cloths. Candle sticks. Vintage silver forks and spoons.
When Jake Seuss calls today, I stand painting “Red Palio,” a thirty-six inch canvas. My subject is Il Palio di Siena, an annual horse race rooted in the Middle Ages: jockeys ride bareback in the center of a Tuscan village. Scarlet banners string from marble balconies, aburst with yelling onlookers. I sign my paintings Alice, a name Jake Seuss likes to call me. He also calls me Juliet, Dhalinka Muse, bébé, doodlebug rambler, babydoll, and ‘Alice no sin’ (my name is Alison). In Rome, my godmother abbess called me Alessandrina.
The studio smells like linseed oil and spike lavender solvent. An earthenware platter serves as my painting palette, pulsing in violets, roses, broken blues, and honeyed yellows. Chattering sparrows noisily cluster in leafy branches. Restaurant conversations drift upwards to where I paint “Red Palio” in rusty ochres and scarlet reds. An ebony stallion rears, throwing his rider. A white charger leans into a sharp turn. Everything recedes into the crowd, except a winning white mare. Summertime burns through my windows. I’m in sunshine’s spotlight. I paint naked, drinking cold water. I’ve got to. My studio has no air conditioning, the ceiling fan doesn’t work, and I possess only a winter wardrobe.
My legs are long. My small bosom is high and circular with rosebud nipples. I had no cleavage until this year. My breasts developed late and now they are adolescent-fresh. Bible-black hair falls down my back. To stay cool, I twist my hair up in a long-handled paintbrush. Between my fingers, I twirl paintbrushes like batons. I paint with my right, but switch hand-to-hand, bouncing the brushes, a conduit for creative fire.
Two years ago, starving for sleep and food, I took on the appearance of a wilted wildflower. Not anymore; I rebounded. Looking back, it’s as if I was never homeless, stranded as I was inside Columbia University’s Butler Library. Betrothed to Jake Seuss.
“Soul destroying to think of you doing that,” Jake Seuss says over the telephone, still in the theme of sadness. I wish he could see how his love was worth any hardship. I think that money-minded men and women would give their last dime for the loverly love we own.
Waiting for Jake Seuss was like waiting for Cat in the Hat. And when he arrived? Oh, God! Mutual divine bliss. I vividly remember my second year of homelessness, a winter several years ago. We were geographically apart, but inseparable via cell phone and two thousand emails. “I think you are beautiful,” I’d said, meaning his individual, unswappable self.
“I’m really not.”
“I think you are beautiful,” my words nestling against his heart.
“Mémère (his ninety year old mother) is making my supper,” ever so softly.
“What is she making?”
“I don’t know, but that’s what she says.” Over the phone, we cooed goodbye many times. Whenever we’d parted in person, Jake Seuss had clung to me, kissing my lips.
After that call, I sent an email: “Ask your mother to make something that you really like; hot chocolate if it’s cold. It is, I think, nineteen degrees Fahrenheit, snowy with biting winds. I long for the day when I can make you hot chocolate with mine own hands. We could sit by flashlight beneath the bed covers. I could kiss your hands until your fingers are warm.” I was homeless when I sent the message.
He replied, “I miss your lovely love.”
Why did I wait for Jake Seuss? “And more years will go by,” he says today during the Hudson Valley phone call. Motivation, the heart of the flower, hides deeply in the mystery of my honeybee panties, cotton panties stamped with black and yellow bees.
Prince once sang, “You don’t have to be rich,” Telecaster guitar hitting the Sun. Smashing the Moon. Jake Seuss doesn’t have to be rich to be my hero. He doesn’t have to be anything but himself, good or bad.
Jake Seuss wanted me to paint him in the nude (my expertise at Columbia had been figure painting), yet every time we were buff naked, we were making out and wasted no time on artworks.
He inscribed a photo of himself, “To Alice, Many X’s,” and from it I created his likeness, before I was homeless. I gaze at his portrait, as we speak via cell phone, in my Hudson Valley studio. I painted his brown eyes as blue marbles, rendering the essence of my lover’s mysterious ways, youthful and inscrutable, like our romance.
2. Dark-Eyed Brunette
(Lapis Lazuli Stars)
Reader Road Map: a listing of people in the book. Current Events: villains, lechers, pedophiles, meanies, and bitter-spirited poops cropping up year after year, ready to quench life’s happiness. News Topic: Civil Rights.
Jake Seuss is the hero of my memoir (a book of remembered events). Because he is my only sweetheart, he figures very large. Except in my poems and the Bridegroom Night chapter, I changed his name: “I’m begging you,” he asked.
And a few times, I leave out people’s names altogether, especially if their role in my life was specific, more or less, to their job titles. I hope to tell my story without embarrassing anyone. In my book, we are writers, poets and artists in the public eye. For the sake of future generations, I go on record to preserve facts. Yes, all this happened. A short book can’t include my entire life, but I mark the milestones that shaped my fate.
The nut in the shell of it all: I learned to forgive.
Did the sun shine down from a sky of cornflower blue or was the moon riding high in a lapis lazuli mottled with stars? I don’t know the time of my birth, day or night, but the year was 1962 and John F. Kennedy was President of the United States.
When Dora, my birth mother, stole my birth certificate, I already held a United States passport.
Dora seemed to learn parenting seated on a staircase (wearing a misty-green nightgown), reading Sybil, a novel about horrific maternal child abuse. “I’ve lost my mind,” Dora wailed. Her nightgown was two-toned. The breast, pale. The lower gown, a darker, sea-foam green. My birth father’s reading was worse than Sybil. In response, I sat in my bedroom, holding a 19th century swing-out single-action Colt revolver. Loaded. The pistol’s fat belly held six bullets. The gun had to be cocked manually, firing one bullet at a time. My birth father, Robert Burns—her husband, kept the gun inside an antique washstand, topped by a marble slab and a beveled mirror. I saw myself in the mirror, holding the revolver. I never fired a shot.