Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Laura Ulewicz, Why It Is I Choose To Be Alien: Selected Poems, ed. Stephen Vincent


Both from her and her archives which, as literary executor, I ultimately helped to acquire, I learned more of her history. She arrived in San Francisco around 1950, in her early 20s, definitely on the run from Detroit, and never went home again. Was there child abuse? Her much younger cousin, Dona, whom I would meet after Laura’s death, said her father was difficult. But her middle class home was full of books and a piano. She was clearly bright; the parents wanted her to become a math teacher. She was no doubt rebellious. Arrested for shoplifting what she later told Dona was a “sexy dress,” her parents refused to pay her bail. A friend paid it and she married him; they moved to Chicago where the marriage would not last. It is not really clear what she initially did in San Francisco. Gradually she migrated into a Bohemian life whose center was in North Beach. Refusing to take an office job, she worked in nightclubs as a “camera girl.” She began to write a loose kind of open-ended verse and published in small, local magazines. Attractive, with a thick head of whiskey dark hair and physically strong, people might have wondered if she had just wandered in off the family farm. Indeed, as the poems clarify, her Polish ancestors were peasants. (“My proper source, my past madness. What do they know that I don’t? Defeat? Victory in it? That people die?,” Stephen Vincent)

I was fascinated to go through this posthumous selected poems by American poet Laura Ulewicz (1930-2007), her Why It Is I Choose To Be Alien: Selected Poems, edited with a hefty introduction by San Fransico poet and editor Stephen Vincent (Delete Press, 2022). I hadn’t heard of Laura Ulewicz prior to receiving this title in the mail, and Vincent’s introduction explains why: articulating a sequence of misadventures and near-misses that caused her work to not be picked up in one anthology or another that might have allowed her some further attention. Having fallen in with the Beat poets in San Francisco, her short biography at the Poetry Foundation website includes: “She had an intense love affair with Jack Gilbert, who dedicated his first book to her, and she ran the I-Thou coffee house on Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s. She was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward for a time, and allegedly escaped. Her first and only book, The Inheritance, was published in 1967; she published sparingly during her lifetime, although her work appeared in literary magazines in the US and the UK, in anthologies such as Richard Peabody’s A Different Beat: Writing by Women of the Beat Generation (1997), and as broadsides in the Bay Area during the 1960s.”

Vincent structures the collection chronologically across four sections, each of which hold to a different geography and living situation for Ulewicz across her writing life, opening with elements of the one and only collection she published, which appeared with Turret Books during the period she lived in London, England: “The Inheritance (c. 1960-1967),” “Expatriation (c. 1960-1964),” “California (c. 1965-1972)” and “Locke (c. 1973-1980).” There are conversations one could have about a history of women artists and writers that get set aside for the sake of male writers, a number of whom have found new readers through a variety of readers, critics, editors and publishers taking it upon themselves to reclaim what had otherwise been lost, from Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970) and Mina Loy (1882-1966) to Anne Wilkinson (1910-1961), and, from Vincent’s introduction, there is certainly that, combined with multiple shifts in her geography and living situations which prompted a shaky stability, too uncertain to maintain enough ties to keep a literary momentum flourishing, despite her ongoing output. Her work, as evidenced here, has a momentum, a propulsion, that keeps pushing, even beyond the ending of her sharp, critical, observational and occasionally caustic, first-person lyrics. She existed, and she wrote, and these poems are worth reading, and worth savouring. From that opening section:


Down from the cosmos of these abstractions, TRACK IN
To this imperturbable arm of the orange machine.
This is the first of the beasts: Slave-kind of that
Prosperity by which we are doomed to freedom.
Inch along the arm with your lens to the jaw-hand.
It is noon. The jaw rests raised and silent.
CUT to the sun where one bird esses then glides
Slowly down to light on the knuckles. Follow
The bird, its down-flit to the fence. The place
Where all things mesh is this galvanized fence
Within which my mother kneels to set out
Gladiola. Beside it she knitted sweaters
For some godling to outgrow in casual hours.
that was her serious business, was her prayer
While the orange machine gauging a pit next door
Made mood music, mood music, mood music.
Freedom is what she knit this fence against.

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