Remembering José Donoso (1924-1996)
AE Reiff

I have been writing a letter to José Donoso for forty years, written and rewritten but never mailed. It has been a dead letter for a long time. Nothing appeals so much as a promise unfulfilled and nothing is so vacant as one forgotten. Not that I made any promise, but a debt is the same whether acknowledged or not. Forty years I have been writing this letter and would think to have gotten farther than this. He was a companion out of the night of sorrow for me and I want to offer a view of his companionship and to evoke some of the experiences that occurred with it.
I had been in Limón, Costa Rica, for the third time that year, bookstore inventories, cleaning up cockroach nests, but planned to delay my return to San José by first going to the so-called most remote beach in the country. I was on the bus by myself that morning, prepared for this distant spot when a messenger came running to the bus window with a note that I should return immediately to San José. My brother had contracted a form of viral myocarditis in the Air Force the previous year, had been in and out of hospitals and finally given a medical discharge, but I didn't fully appreciate his dire condition. I began to suspect it while I got a flight on a cargo plane and was back in San José two or three hours later, eating a loaf of brown bread from the roach infested bakery. A call waited at Western Union where I went from the airport, downtown, ran actually, got the call patched through with the news that my brother had died, which left me with a split second decision whether to return then or finish the remaining three weeks of my stay. I was now the oldest son. I ran some more across the city in the direction of the offices of Editorial Caribe where I worked. It was 3 PM. Without really saying much of goodbyes I disappeared to the airport and boarded the flight for Miami at 8 PM. This landed in Panama City for a six hour layover before the flight to Miami at 4 the next morning.

I was sitting on a bench at 10 PM in the old Panama City airport, deep in non-conversation when José Donoso sat down. We were on the same flight to Miami with a six hour wait. It was mid-May, diffused light, humidity, night. Somehow in a completely inoffensive way he sat on that bench as though it was a pew, which it looked like, and suggested we hire a cab and tour the city at night. So in the middle of this voyage within a voyage we took a voyage, a three-hour cab ride of the canal and city, returned to the airport and boarded the flight. He did not allude to what he could see. I never saw him again, but he gave me his card, how else would I have remembered his name? I arrived in Miami at about 8, waited 4 hours for the flight to Philadelphia. Passed out, woke up, reboarded, got picked up at the airport by my father, who told me the last hours of my brother's struggle for life, how his lungs filled with fluid, how all that night before dawn my father wrestled with him because he kept trying to go out the window seeking air in delirium. My mother came in toward dawn to spell him and my brother died in her arms. I wept copiously during this narrative. He was buried May 22, 1963.
Every time I remembered Panama City, 1963, I remembered José Donoso and wanted to acknowledge him. But every time I remembered I either failed, forgot, or was dumbfounded, like the time I tried to read his Obscene Bird of Night. When my thanks were finally ready for post he had been gone ten years. I keep falling asleep and waking up.
Poets think an illusion that words make a difference, but talk is so cheap. Commitment and discipline cost. Books amount to nothing compared to contact with the great, found closest to home, but we must go abroad to find it except it is not outside us, but in us. Sure, everything ends in death, but the kind of life and death is at issue. Words don't cut it. Poets live least well, alienated from fellows and themselves. They call it the price they pay for greatness. What greatness? The ones who make a difference are the ones you know.
I pretend to this greatness, but with disrespect, took a B in high school English and an essay that declared the Greeks believed in immortality, spelled immorality, into a graduate paper analyzing the allegory of Pride in the Faerie Queene, with twenty spelling errors. The advisor informed it was a good thing I was admitted the previous year. Standards had risen. On probation anyway for low grades, I walked on at the Iowa Writer's Workshop thinking I would learn how to write and get an M.A. Forty years later those habits are wearing off.

José Donoso was in Iowa City from '65-'67, as I was from '64 to '66, after being removed from the workshop. So I had another chance. But like the piano teacher once said, "don't you listen to yourself play," all that time I forgot. Poets and fiction writers didn't mix anyway. You either had Vonnegut, Donoso and Bourjaily or Justice, Starbuck and Strand.
I came to the poetry workshop by the back door, showed fifteen poems to George Starbuck and got a handwritten note for registration. There were three large sections of poets, 75 people. Sometimes they met in one large hall. The format was: submit poems for the weekly worksheet, meet three hours to discuss them, then meet with the teacher one on one. I drew Donald Justice but never learned the trick of deflecting criticism with self-deprecation, so these meetings were terrible tortures of silence, one word answers usually wrong. Criticize your own work and he would defend it, but shut up and he glared. Mutual glaring occurred for an hour. I was impressed with his fanatic perfectionism and didn't later think it unusual anybody would work 20 years on a poem. One time I worked pretty hard on some lines and got two right, "new birth is a storm / water with spirit." He said, those are good. He said, what about the rest of the poem? He gave a C+ go to Vietnam grade. In 1966 all grades were political, unlike the piano teacher who promised a C if I would just stop.
In those sections that met in Quonset huts he never said anything about writing, it was a peer review. James Tate was in that class and other scholarship players. The hispid style I wrote, cracks, fissures, imponderable rocks and desert mountain, was the way I also read his landscape. We're all more contradictory that we believe. One is mellifluous as bees and pissy; another, completely blocked and unhappy, is compulsively successful; another introverted failure has a heritage of 10 generations. The tortured soul and the other I didn't know conditioned their own last days. You can be honed to this edge, your mind can scythe, you can lose relations, wife, children, or have none, be surrounded by "friends" and be alone, you can win the prize and die in your urine.

I had my army physical that summer of '65 in Iowa. A bus load went to Des Moines for the day to reclassify anybody from out of town as 1-A, wherein I proved defective, something about a knee that was loose. The army apologized for this rejection, said that just because they didn't want me didn't mean I wasn't a good person. In unbearable lightness I heard this while ricocheting four feet off the ground. When the boys stepped forward to take the oath I was benched. Couldn't walk on there, other than the Vietnam grade and a regard for the fanaticism perfection, "new birth is a storm, water with spirit." "Why don't you work like that on everything?"

I next remembered José Donoso in '68 where by accident I was a TA for football walk-ons and scholarship players in early AM Texas freshmen English classes. The walk-ons practiced every day, but never played. I asked why. One was average size, and he was always black and blue. Love of the game. The scholarship players were outstanding specimens, 6' 8," wide beyond measure, faster than the eye. Give an F to one of these and coach came to office hours. No visits for the walk-on. The materials I had circulated among the scholarship players of literature at Iowa were later sometimes graciously offered rewrites by editors. Multiple opportunities were lost spitting. Once a reviewer wrote condemning the effrontery of writing in the first place. I still have that letter. One of this person's poems is on the net where he French kisses a dead horse. Sometimes however they would forget to write.

Walk-ons don't read the right stuff or know the right people. While the scholarship players were at camps in summer getting enriched and reading Byron, at 15, 16 and 17 I worked in factories and gas stations. Two summers I worked in a foundry washing the letters off tombstones. I operated a bath where the cast molds for gravestones were brought after casting to be cleaned. The names and dates in bronze metallic letters had been fastened in the layout section as the finished product should read. After casting they were brought to a superheated bath, a tub where I soaked them in hot treated water, wearing arm length rubber gloves, and scrubbed the letters off. Then I would sort the letters and load the blanks on a skid to be recycled. The full time workers had fast cars and Italian, Polish, French ethnic Pittsburgh ways. I didn't feel denatured so much as generalized, like the spaceman in Lem's Solaris who feels something but doesn't know what it is. A summer after that I worked for Container Corp cutting up skid loads of printed cartons with a jackhammer with other adult humorless laborers and downtrodden. Not nice, the 3 to 11 shift, which accounts all the high school summers before college.

Even before that Panama night in 1963 I threw over everything for writing, went to Iowa City the next year, a walk-on with a business degree. I had sent one story back to North America that year before, full to the core of strange effects, the magical reality of a hundred impressions, a transparent allegory about a family of cockroaches. Johnny Fernandez Kucaracha was a young cockroach who died saving his tribe from dramatic threats against them.
When JFK visited San Jose March 18-20 for the Alliance For Progress, the volcano Irazu erupted. It took the ash some time to fall, but when it did the streets were coated each morning with gunmetal dust. His motorcade down Avenida Central through hundreds of thousands of people compounds in my memory with Easter of that year, a month later, when from early dawn I walked the streets and photographed the immense parade preparations, the crucified Christ carried on the shoulders of people with the Virgin and St. Joseph.
I sent this parable to The New Yorker in May under the name of Simón Real without return postage, six months, prophetically, before the event predicted in the story occurred. They sent it back in the second week of November 1963, a week or so before the assassination. I always imagined it to have been my debut had they kept it another couple of weeks. But walk-ons don't get breaks.

Dear José Donoso, I have thought of writing this and have done so a number of times but it was never right. The paragraphs below I took from a longer piece meant to show how that kindness unescaped, goes around. I acknowledge and thank you for this, but it was in May 1963 that this occurred. I wonder if you remember.
One night in Panama City when I was 21, with a six hour layover for the flight to Miami at 4 AM, sitting on an airport bench, having just learned my brother had died, to me suddenly, but after affliction, one JFK later send a certificate for, flying home for the funeral, sitting in the dark sweat and heat of that May night, closed in a denial fixed with faith, but that unknown, those terminal neon signs flashing on and off, a man sat down.
We are waiting for the same flight. He suggests to kill the time we hire a cab, see Panama City at midnight, the canal. Large hills arise out of night. He didn't ask why the frown. At 10 AM that day I had been on my way to the remote Atlantic coast, bus, then mule, then only ocean and sand. A message came: return to San Jose. I caught a plane, ran to Western Union. Sure I knew. Decided to return.
Three hours we drove the city in this cab. The locks, the walls, everything else faint. I had no fear. He was a man who could see. He gave me his card. José Donoso.

If you're going forward how much plan you need depends. Who knows what time will bring. Be faithful in the meantime and believe. You never know. Something like this must have been my thoughts before that Costa Rican voyage, that if you look at the roots of a thing the flowers and foliage will show. What lay behind that is a lot indistinct. I had wandered the College library basement often and always seemed to wind up at a shelf of Kierkegaard, like it was a labyrinth that always led to this Minotaur. Not just a shelf, a whole collection of Kierkegaard, all his works, various printings, some in foreign languages, a significant collection Why this existed in a tech school? I visited dozens of times, often taking down the Concluding Unscientific Postscript as my favorite, reading a few pages each time. It was a green hardbound copy, several volumes. I certainly never mentioned this to anybody and, like everything else, I have no idea yet what I was looking for or why I was doing it.

I have not been back to Costa Rica, but nearly every other American has, flying over the chicle fields, stopping at the machine gun nest-manned airport at Mérida, hopping stop by stop down the continental spine, San Salvador, Guatemala City, Managua, San José. I guess today they fly straight through. I met a nightclub owner on the outskirts of San José who kept crocodiles in pits for the tourists. When I left San José the sun was red like hand blown German glass setting on the wing of the plane, the sea below flicking white hand claps.
I took a helping of attitudes back with me because I shared a dorm with students from all over Latin America. As a pretext in a public speaking class later, I cited Milton Eisenhower's The Wine Is Bitter, but got an antagonistic reception. I began to translate Rubén Darío. There is pure hatred of academics in the street. I was an academic temporary for a while, but soon walked. Long since I stopped typing. When I woke up again newsprint had been dead a decade.

I never said this much before, but do so now because my son wants to know. I had the effrontery after a Shakespeare class at Bill Ingrams's house to ask what there still was that I hadn't read. With a smile he suggested, had I read the Faerie Queene? Now, I think that, even though words mean nothing in the real world, I haven't come close to knowing or reading anything. I keep the Eddas around, have tattooed Psalm 34 on my chest.
It's a terrible thing to be honest, that's why so many writers have destroyed their work or willed its death, but for interventions. Artaud is one of a hundred. I had kept a journal in Costa Rica but finally couldn't stand it. It reminded me of things I wanted to forget, so ruthless I recorded, in my own code, but the point was that I knew what it meant even if no one else could. I threw it away, but regret it when I'm trying to get a sense of the verse of things so to speak. The poets burned, scraped, tore and buried their work. Honestly, the reflection of ghosts, the betrayals of themselves, the sacrifices are too painful to remember. But my father kept the letters, more socially digestible, that retain the timeline I have continually refused. Were you to argue with me I'd say the letters were wrong.
I didn't keep a journal in Iowa City. Walk-ons don't keep track except in faulty memories. Who are these people that sustain relationships over a lifetime? It sounds misanthropic to doubt such continuity. The organized movement turned out to be the same as organized religion, posturing, preening and prospering. What do I know? What matters is the dance and music, the sound of the words, the grip of rhythm, the color, the flow, like a film has to hold until you relax and can't let go. But the dance and the music aren't enough in the word. There has to be a deeper philosophic urge, depth, raw syntactic honesty, bedrock that echoes for all time. There is no word for it.