Book Review: John Thomas: Venice Poet Extraordinaire

By Fred Dewey

John Thomas, perhaps Los Angeles’ greatest underground poet, was a big man with a wise and lined countenance, piercing wit, deep, resonant voice, and always slightly stunned, gentle eyes. Inseparable from his wife, poet and filmmaker Philomene Long, his Muse, Thomas radiated a passion for books and poetry, watching from a respectful distance all that transpired around him.

This fueled the poetry; it was as if he, with Philomene, filled with life that lost and real realm behind the cliché we call the bohemian life. John and Philomene had withdrawn from ordinary society, following their vow of poverty, forming a compact with each other outside material considerations and virtually all practicality. They were like intertwined trunks in a single, majestic, flexible, and bending tree.

When you entered their book and quote-lined refuge at the Ellison on Paloma, off the boardwalk, you felt like you were enveloped in an incredible force; they made it safe again to talk about meaning. “The poem” bound them and permitted no rivals.

Generally, Thomas spoke very little: he seemed more often like a bystander perplexed by extraordinary and sometimes horrible times. Two things were never in question: deference to the Muse—Philomene– on all matters, and tending to a precious cargo, carried, I suspect, from an early visit to Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeth’s.

I believe this was one of the grounding premises of his life’s work. It required constant attention, learning, and a storyteller’s sensibility that, the mundane and not so mundane, the reassuring and entirely embarrassing, the profound and very light, and all his companions, real and unreal, in this rich journey, be brought forward and told.

With works ranging from Epopoeia and the Decay of Satire and John Thomas to the late chapbook, Feeding the Animal, Thomas became the raconteur, generator of epigrams, tall tales and haiku, a restless experimenter with language, subject matter, tone and purpose, always acting, or as he said “pretending,” as if “he doesn’t care.” Charles Bukowski, a close friend, and one never given to pretension, admired Thomas for his poetry and for digging. As with Bukowski, there was always simplicity, the appearance of an ordinary person talking: direct speech, proposing a single, almost koan-like thought in each poem, as in this from “Ah But the Poem”: “the pearl in the palm is the poem, no / the knowing.”

Thomas first drew attention in the ferment of Venice West and the Gas House during the 1950s and ‘60s. He described events with a detached, bemused eye, the same eye he brought to bear on childhood trips past Poe’s grave in Baltimore and the first, crucial encounter with Pound.

Thomas drew on things without cultural idolatry or any sense of respecting traditions, traditions that were, to be honest, shattered anyway. He merely said “I love Edgar Poe,” or, in thinking of the great philosopher Michel de Montaigne—inventor of the essay as philosophical self-examination—that “hot tears spring to my eyes” “that I never saw him, never knew him, / never heard his lazy Gascon accent.”

Montaigne was a fitting model, because a free and ranging mind always seems a scandal for society. “Venice California is a very murky universe for / man—alone and no god around.” No incarnation or salvation is to be found, because “to live in Los Angeles, a minor poet of some local repute: surely this satisfies any interpretations of the doctrine of Sufficient Disgrace. Well, for many, nothing has ever proved sufficient. The fatal flaw, amigo.”

Thomas’ fusing of braggadocio, self-criticism, minimalist experimentalism and the far-fetched upended genre and rhetorical categories. Even as his imagination takes us elsewhere, he declares, without hesitation, “I am this ruined elsewhere.”  The language is beautiful, then utterly, quite deliberately, dismissible, then not. “The tenth of March is the anniversary of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden.” This is said with perfect conviction. “Some of this – no a lot of this – is recalled inaccurately, / but I don’t care. How accurate was Cervantes’ Latin guidebook?”

One early image is stuck in my mind: Thomas squeezing out of their tiny, classic Volkswagen beetle in front of Beyond Baroque, for the debut of Stuart Perkoff’s posthumously-released Voices of the Lady: Collected Poems. The couple had been close to Perkoff, Philomene as Perkoff’s partner at the end, Thomas as his friend.

Thomas, like Perkoff, preferred to follow the poem into the lowest depths. The ego blocked knowing, and fame and money were distractions. There is “the Great World…we’ll never see / and this other world, visible and audible of (who trained them?)… parrots.” Then, in another place, speaking of a grievous mistake he may have committed, says of mistakes, “How do I remember that? / because everyday of my life, I’ve made at least one.” Thomas doesn’t waver: “I take / the entire burden of blame.” Then he says: “You will think that I labor under some delusion. Perhaps I do, considering the infectious hysteria of this country from which I write. But the delusion is not a morbid one, it is a wholesome action of the mind, reasoning on actual occurrences.”

His wife would repeat proudly, and often, one of Thomas’ great epigrams: “Go naked, take nothing.” And so Thomas’ last poem, a love poem about giving Philomene a crown of violets, aches: “While you read this, love, please turn your back on me.” Thomas dedicated his late work to his wife, in the last bone-aching years that became the true test of the vow of poverty. It was for these poems that Thomas wanted to be remembered. His life and work, courageous, multiform, infuriating, and wondrous, are summed up in words now engraved on the walls of the Venice boardwalk: “Even the barrel of my pen / is full of the ghosts of uncouth poets. They are the bitter crackling sound I hear / when Philomene brushes her hair. / In case you wondered, / they are the small transparent parasols / all of us stroll beneath.”

Fred Dewey was director of Beyond Baroque Literary / Arts Center in Venice from 1996 to 2010 and was curator of the Venice Poetry Walls. This tribute is excerpted by the Beachhead, with permission, from his longer introduction to the newly issued Selected Poetry and Prose of John Thomas, edited by Pegarty Long (Raven).    

Photo and book cover by Pegarty Long

Buy on-line at www.raven-productions.com

or at Beyond Baroque.

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