A Philomene Rhapsody

By Delores Hanney

They are already ghosts
John and Philomene
As they pass
Along the Boardwalk
Where ghosts and poets overlap…

Philomene Long

More than two years after her passing, the silence of her absence from the streets and the sand of her cherished Venice milieu still echoes like a great mournful wail.  Left in the vacuum created by the loss of her, even the pigeons remain grieved, I fancy.

By the age of eight Philomene Long was already drawn to the cloister, captured by the drama, the trappings, the whole mystical gestalt of it all. She slipped into a nun’s habit within the order of St. Joseph’s of Carondelet in Los Angeles, immediately following her stint as a high school wild child. Five years later, she would jump the convent wall to be spirited off  — in the dark of nite — in a get-away car driven by her sister Pegarty.

Leaving the convent did not represent an abandonment of spirituality, or even a rejection of Catholicism. Instead, under the tutoring of Maezumi Roshi she would surrender to an immersion in Zen Buddhism that blended into a customized theology and to self-identification as a Zen-Catholic. Her poetry, too, became like an element of her faith walk.

It was poetry that brought her to Venice in 1968, pulled by its reputation for harboring the poor and poetic, but too late for the Beat Generation’s halcyon days. Still, she stayed and she carried on its traditions.

Poetry became her, in the way a fiery sunset is becoming to the western sky. Her range was boundless and included dreamy odes to the California Missions, a disturbingly vivid testimony regarding self-flagellation, a hilarious retelling of the winning homerun in a vintage baseball game, a little whine about leaky ceilings. She wrote poems in praise of a politician, in praise of Venice itself as “holy ground/stained by the blood of poets,” a fragment of the latter carved into Venice’s Poetry Wall at Windward Plaza.

At readings she unleashed her words in a raspy, ravenesque voice wrapped in a dramatic cadence with just a wee Irish lilt on occasion: indeed, the ideal instrument for a howl of wrath or a purring caress and wielding the frank authority to proclaim the end of the world, should the situation arise. A master cobbler of poetic thought forms, Philomene was officially the Poet Laureate of Venice, so designated in an impressive commendation extolling her mind-enchanting, heart-inspiring, soul-uplifting talent and eloquence.

She was zany and mercurial. She was earthy and otherworldly. She was accustomed to the visibility that charisma endows, had been since the years of her youth.

A girl guru, gifted teacher, good friend; Philomene Long was all of these. At UCLA’s extension school, she was a popular faculty member in the writing program, inciting her students to passion for the pleasures of poetry and fervor for its well-crafted creation. She was an ardent promoter of the Beyond Baroque literary center, where she facilitated workshops and was an unfaltering supporter of its director, Fred Dewey. She romped through her sister’s film, The Irish Vampire Goes West, an eerie, fairy festooned tale about a poet snatched by a vampire and her sister’s dogged rescue efforts.

He wasn’t her first lover, but the others were eclipsed by the coming — in 1983 — of the poet John Thomas, whom Philomene referred to as “my only one.” Her twinship with Pegarty — of the monozygotic sort — was training for the concentrated relationship with Thomas, in which their two souls seemingly swirled into one.

Simmering in their commitment to one another and to their artistic exertions, they lived at the Ellison Apartments on Paloma Avenue. Although brazenly funky, it’s a venerable brick structure built in 1914 with a sea view and a nesting place for pigeons outside the kitchen window and a creaky green iron gate one door up from the boardwalk. From here they embraced voluntary poverty and sallied forth into the bohemian enclave: the high priestess of the realm, and her beloved consort.

But always, Pegarty — her twin sister, twin star — was there as the wind beneath her wings. Now Philomene comes to her in recurring dreams, their monozygotic bond undiminished.  b

Five years ago this month our beloved Poet Laureate, Philomene Long, slipped the surly bonds of earth, as they say, presumably to hook up once more with her “only one,” John Thomas, in order to resume their legend-worthy love affair in some distant cosmic realm where poetry is practiced and revered. This article, first appearing three years ago in the Journal of the Venice Historical Society, is reprinted here in remembrance of her dazzling earthly presence.