by Raphael Rubinstein
"Dark Terrace I" by Josette Urso
Marc Penka was a volatile mixture of romantic poet, philosophically inclined scholar and rock-and-roll rebel. I met him when we were both undergraduates at Bennington College in 1976. We saw a lot of each other from 1978 until 1980, in Bennington and New York. After that, I think we only saw each other a handful of times. The last occasion was in Phoenix (I'm extremely vague about the year). He was living there temporarily; I was visiting family. We had lunch at a Thai restaurant and talked about poetry, our mutually agreed favorite subject. Marc's and my approaches to poetry, and to just about everything else in life, couldn't have been more different, but there was always much that we agreed about (the greatness of A.R. Ammons, for instance), and we both, I think, had a rash faith in the redemptive power of a thoroughly new poem.
As happens when you try to recall an old friend, my memory of Marc is structured around a series of isolated events, which are sometimes no more than a single image that, for some reason, was fixed and framed when everything surrounding it has gone forever.
I can still see Marc on a balmy summer New York evening in the late '70s walking off by himself along Waverly Place toward Washington Square Park. A group of us had just finished dinner somewhere. After standing on the corner chatting for a while, Marc strolled off to buy some pot, so at ease in a city that seemed to me, newly arrived, equal parts inspiring and menacing. In another, more Polaroid-like memory, probably from January or February 1979, I see him at the Mudd Club during a performance of some kind, by chance standing next to Debbie Harry.
It was that same year that Marc, Terry Berne and I gave a joint reading on a Monday night at St. Marks Poetry Project. More savvy than either Terry or me, Marc had made contact with Ron Padgett, then director of St. Marks. We each read our own poems, then sequentially recited an Oulipo-inspired text, an "L.S.D" (litérature sémo-définitionnelle), that we'd just created using, as I recall, a passage on Kitzbühel from an old guidebook. I'd just returned from a semester in Paris where I'd been introduced to the Oulipo by one of my teachers, Harry Mathews. In Paris, I'd also befriended Marc's then girlfriend, Nancy P., who was also studying there, and had been not only a witness to but a sympathetic facilitator of her betrayal of Marc (another story for another time). As I left Paris for New York, she gave me a card with a long passionate message to Marc, which I never delivered, partly because of the disorganization that prevailed in our lives in those days, and partly from a feeling of discomfort at being the go-between in their personal troubles. Eventually, she showed up in New York and she and Marc continued their mutually destructive but sexually irresistible romance for a little while longer. (I don't know what happened to Nancy, but another of Marc's early girlfriends, Jacqueline Humphries, has gone on to become a noted abstract painter.)
The year before, in the spring of 1978, Marc and I had co-edited an issue of Silo, Bennington College's literary magazine whose editorship had fallen into Marc's hands almost by accident. In the normal course of things, Marc would never have been chosen to edit this genteel vehicle of the kind of good writing on which Bennington prided itself, but sometime over the winter the officially designated editor decided he didn't want the job and Marc, by I'm not sure what chain of events, took over. I was as excited by this opportunity as he was and together we set about to blast open the doors of Silo, as well as publish as much of our own poetry in the issue as possible. It wasn't career ambition or vanity that led us to include so many of own pages but rather the fact that a) there wasn't very much other Bennington poetry we liked and b) our general rule was the more the better.
Because there was no time left for typesetting, and anyway we wanted to work without restrictions, we (and some deputized friends) had to type every single page on an IBM Selectric in one of the administration's offices. (In those pre-PC days, the Selectric was the preferred tool of nearly every poor little magazine.) We spent night after night, pounding out text, frequently having to go back to correct typos with White Out, correct type and the Selectric's own cumbersome correcting method that had to be used while you were still typing the page. We'd take turns late at night, one of us typing while the other read submissions. Other students would drop by to chat. One night, a poet, one of whose poems we'd accepted, came by with a bottle of wine for us, a gesture which we thought deserved two or three more of his poems in the magazine. (This was Jeffrey Wilson, who insisted that all his astringently lyrical poems appear anonymously; like Marc, he would soon fall into addiction and died of a self-inflicted heroin overdose in Berkeley in the early 1980s.)
The result looked and read nothing like previous issues of Silo. It was a large red volume with a complicated acrostic on the cover, looking more like a language textbook than a literary magazine and packed with dozens and dozens of poems, stories, essays (including one by Marc on Barthes and Sartre), photographs and drawings. Among the contents was a two-page poem of Marc's, published anonymously, in which he allusively and mockingly chronicles the making of the issue. The first stanza melds an allusion to a recent dramatic car accident from which Marc had miraculously emerged unscathed, with snapshots of editing and his romantic life. It also employs disruptive mid-line and mid-word slashes, a feature of Marc's poetry of the time:
so the car rolled three times/ television eye/land. spying
we were still walking but she understands now. we were still
from props stopped broken on lawn/farm college/barn. They
still working on the magazine but she understands that I
have died trying.
A later stanza has a kind of tripping meter that may owe a debt to Kerouac (and Marc's beloved Patti Smith) but, to my ear, also anticipates the rhythmical experiments of rap music:
you're fooling you're soothing you're schooling you're
the movement to rules. accoutrements popular optical sock-
spontaneous bop/ page doctors
arranging the cure before the disease/ grave robbers/ taking
The last pages of the issue carried a purported exchange of letters and telegrams among Jacques Derrida, Patti Smith and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. The actual authors were Marc (Smith), Wynn Miller (Thompson) and me (Derrida). Marc, Wynn and I fabricated the correspondence sitting around Marc's off-campus room one afternoon. Each armed with a manual typewriter of a different make, we pounded out fictive missives in the style of our chosen persona. The subject of the exchange was an invitation to Derrida to lecture at Bennington--an impossibility that we nonetheless hungered for. (On one occasion, Marc, Terry and I drove down to Yale to hear Derrida give a lecture--his famous "Limited Inc"--and felt like grungy misfits in the wood-paneled lecture room. Afterwards, Marc approached Derrida to tell him that several of our professors at Bennington were to be fired, partly for teaching Derrida's books. The philosopher responded with concern and asked what he could do to help. I don't recall if anything ever came of this encounter.) Marc and Wynn imitated Smith and Thompson to perfection. It was the most spontaneous collaboration I've ever participated in.
The college authorities were so horrified by our Silo that they instituted faculty oversight to make sure the magazine was never hijacked again.
In those days, Marc seemed to his friends destined to be if not "the poet of his generation," then surely a voice in whose wake we could follow. Like so many gifted poets before him, he also had a knack for self-destructive behavior, a taste for alcohol and drugs that too soon took up too much of his life. I remember developing a distaste around then for the writing of Artaud and Rimbaud, largely because these two writers seemed, for friends like Marc, convenient excuses for a kind of intellectual and creative laziness, an easy embrace of the era's cliched rebellion. I recall clearly the moment I realized that Marc's bad habits had become engrained: early 1979, in Terry's apartment on East 53rd Street, as we hung around until it was time to go to clubs downtown, he pulled a pint of liquor from a pocket of his jacket and began sipping on it the way the rest of us puffed on our cigarettes. That bottle was clearly something he felt he couldn't do without.
It must have been in 1980 that Marc, Jeff Wilson and I convened one afternoon in my Greenwich Street loft to discuss a literary magazine I wanted to start. Marc and Jeff seemed interested but a year later I had grown distant from such concerns, and Marc and Jeff were spiraling down.
Some time later Marc migrated to Los Angeles, living in his car, I heard, hanging out with music writer R. Meltzer and frequenting the local punk scene. I also embarked on some years of drifting, and we lost touch for a while. Later in the decade we were sending each other letters and recent work (somewhere I must have some of his letters and poems in manuscript). Then, by a surprising but seemingly saving turn of events, he was in graduate school, re-immersed in the rigors of critical theory, apparently extricated from the dangerous life he'd chosen for years. But ultimately that wasn't to be his destiny.
There was so much that Marc understood, understood much better than I ever will, and his poetic imagination was connected by a live wire to the same celestial generator that powered William Blake's work. Maybe it is the inescapable fate of prophetic spirits to fall, to leave behind them memorable words and blasted landscapes, just as it's the responsibility of the rest of us to salvage their shattered legacy, and to ponder it.
Raphael Rubinstein, New York, 2004
previous home next