Reviewed by Linda Lerner
In a book that spans forty years of a man’s life, we are given a close up of the American soul by this San Francisco poet whose vision ranges across a country he both loves and mourns. “This Land is Not My Land,” (1996) a collection of poems dealing with three years he served in Panama during the mid fifties, encapsulates themes that recur throughout this unique collection. “Panama city could have been / any slum city in America;” disillusioned with the corruption he sees there, he views the price paid for not fitting in, being poor, black, elderly and refusing to “Buy...into the system” here as well.
“I have watched / listened / observed / only to return home/ and close the door” behind which he shares his revelations in poems written in a deceptively simple style that startle us with the astuteness of his insights. The book is divided chronologically, beginning with Carmel Clowns (1970) in which we meet the poet in Golden Gate Park picking a flower only to look up into the face of a part-time policeman, the first of many authority figures. Winans tries to ignore him and to “Concentrate on the flower” as the poet throughout his life tries to ignore the dishonesty and hypocrisy he sees in the literary world, paralleled in America, and focus on being true to himself, to his own values.
This is a poet who has never felt comfortable with being called a poet, who would have preferred being blessed with “the skills of a union carpenter” and yet the contradiction: “Poetry and writing have kept me going all these years” he writes in his introductory essay. This dichotomy is at the heart of this collection: how to keep from falling into the American literary success trap and yet be successful for the work one does.
For forty years he’s walked the same streets of San Francisco, of North Beach, “stoned on words” observing the misfits, those who’ve never quite made it into corporate America, people struggling to get by, to keep the demons at bay, walked out of the 20th century into the 21st. where everything and nothing changed.
Crazy John (from Tales of Crazy John, 1975) is a local poet who symbolically embodies them along with poets like Bob Kaufman, Jack Micheline, Bukowski, Kenneth Patchen, A.D. Levya among others, whose visionary genius puts them outside the mainstream and labeled crazy. He’s the guy whose laugh “never failed to frighten the establishment” who can’t handle a simple job, who “invented his own cloud” the guy who “could be seen / dancing a raindance only / flowers understood.” Doctors locked him up in a padded cell, then “with unbelieving eyes (watched) him / create buterflies / from building blocks/ then turn into a frog / forced to devour his creation / in order to survive.” Crazy John represents those poets, jazz musicians, artists who’ve kept Winans going, helped him to believe in what he is doing, to keep his sanity.
The influence of LiPo, in the book’s title, can be seen in some of the latter poems where Winans has written several Haikus, and some shorter imagistic poems along those lines as in “Rain Poem.” In LiPo on my mind” The poet expresses a kinship with this Chinese poet when he concludes saying, “I mark time / like LiPo / mixing words with / wine.”
As he does, he still hears “the shrill cry of dead / jazz greats ring out”, and in North Beach sees “Ghosts at every bar stool” recollecting a time when it “was alive/with creativity.”
There are the ghosts of women he’s loved, poets, and Jazz musician friends who’ve passed on. Tribute is paid to them in his very moving poem, “I Kiss the Feet of Angels.”Among the poets is Bob Kaufman who took a Buddhist vow of silence for ten years after Kennedy was shot, D.A. Levy who knew that you can’t beat the system and was killed trying, Charles Bukowski who twenty days before his death from Leukemia, sent a poem to Wormwood Review, “ perhaps a wry smile /on his face/ for the doctor/ and a hand on the ass/ of the nurse” a man who played “out the game to the end /like only the old man / was capable of doing, Jack Micheline, “A shaman a con man / a vagabond poet ...His poems racing across the / Streets of America / Pure innocence / Pure genius, ...Drunk on the / Pollen of life, Kell Robertson wondering around the country with his guitar, “Nearly 66 / Hard as the highway...Still scrapping / Like the rest of us / For whatever / time is left.”
They are not dead for Winans. As he walks along those same San Francisco streets he’s walked along his whole life, he writes
“I hear the drums
I feel the beat
I kiss the feet
Early in his life, Winans wrote, “america is no place for / a poet to grow old in” which in the new century, by his own admission, he has become. The poet who in the 1970’s watched old men eat their last meals,” now in his seventies, has become one of them. But, it hasn’t lessened his anger, his determination to stay true to his own values. In “How to Spot a Yuppie” (from South of Market, 2006) he writes, “they are young and have ambitious / looks about them.... like they want something / and are willing to kill / to get it.”
So, go out and get this book; walk along with A.D.Winans down those same streets. Cross one decade into the next; leave one century behind and begin a new one. Take a journey you’ll never forget.
Drowning Like LiPo in a River of Red Wine (Selected Poems 1970--2010) by A.D.Winans, Bottle of Smoke Press, 902 Wilson Drive Dover, DE 19904, www.bospress.net, 2010, 364 pp. Trade Paperback. $25.00 with shipping.
ISBN 0-97773000-8-5 hardcover
ISBN 0-97773000-9-3 paperback