By Erica Goss
“To Laura Ulewicz, a kind of dragon” - Jack Gilbert
When the poet Laura Ulewicz passed away in October 2007, it took me by surprise, in spite of the fact that she was seventy-seven, and a smoker with a heart condition. Laura, a part of my life since I was twelve years old, simply could not die. She would always be in Locke, a quirky hamlet located in the Delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, living in the house she bought for three hundred dollars thirty years ago, and writing poems. Laura was a true original, fiercely independent, and though she’s been called a Beat poet, she never included herself in any movement. She lived on her own terms, and died that way too, in her beloved house that leaned to one side (like all of the houses in Locke) surrounded by her books, dogs, friends and the amazing gardens she grew from the black river mud of the Sacramento River.
Just before I turned twelve, my father introduced me to his new girlfriend. Her name was Laura Ulewicz, and all I knew about her was that she was a poet he’d met through Kenneth Rexroth. As a gesture of goodwill, she presented me with a big box of thrift store clothes as an early birthday gift. I was a gawky, too-tall preadolescent painfully aware of my bony wrists and ankles; as I pulled pants, sweaters and blouses from the box, my heart sank. I could tell none of them would fit. My father and Laura insisted I model every outfit, so I trudged back and forth over the grass in the backyard of Laura’s East Bay home, hems between my ankle and calf, shirtsleeves ending at mid-forearm, wishing that the ground would open and swallow me whole. Laura either noticed my discomfort or got tired of my pout, but she finally ended the backyard fashion show and we all went out for ice cream, something we would do often in the coming months. Over our cones – she always ordered raspberry cheesecake – we both laughed when she admitted that she had imagined her new boyfriend’s daughter as a dainty child of about nine. We forged a tentative friendship that day, one built on my fascination with her as a person and her grudging acceptance of me.
Laura could be kind, and she could be cruel. She would answer my endless questions about her life, her poems, places she had visited, and then dismiss me with a curt, “Well, I’m done. Go away.” I would slink off, hurt and disappointed. She was unlike any person I had ever met, and I was forced to wait until she chose to notice me again. Here was a woman who had won an NEA grant, lived in a haunted house in Jamaica, traveled through Europe, slept in Golden Gate Park at age nineteen; she was a certified Bohemian, a Beat, friends with the San Francisco literati and, most important, a poet: proud, irritating, selfish, brilliant, daring. She ran the I-Thou coffee house on Haight Street in the 1960s and always had at least two large, unruly dogs living with her. She was committed to an asylum, escaped and hitch-hiked back home to Detroit, her mind damaged from electroshock treatments.
When I met her, she lived in a flat in the East Bay, part of a house that had a large back yard. In that back yard, Laura grew flowers whose names I committed to memory: sweet william, nemesia, linaria, cleome, nasturtium, alyssum: the names of Laura’s flowers were part of a secret language I longed to learn. As she wrote in one of her last poems:
These flowers I grow
You call them old-fashioned.
I never liked them as a child
They were so common.
Now they stand for something –
What they lasted through –
Now they are rare.
An enormous milk thistle appeared in Laura’s flower garden, a wild, aggressive thing among the roses and lilies. It grew taller and taller, spreading across the damp earth. The leaves were fringed with inch-long spikes. Yet I agreed with Laura that it was a handsome plant, and couldn’t help noticing that the hummingbirds favored its flowers above the others.
During the months Laura and my father lived together, I hung around her as much as possible, absorbing her tales of life in San Francisco during the Beat period, and later when the counter culture of the 1960s hit full force. I heard stories of vacant-eyed teens fresh from the Midwest begging for food on Haight Street; the insufferable behavior of Neil Cassady, who dared a woman to kill herself (she did); how once on her way home from the I-Thou Coffee House, a man reached for Laura from the dark street, but her dog barked and frightened him off. Ginsberg, Rexroth, McClure, Everson, Snyder, Gilbert and many other poets, writers and artists, were her friends and acquaintances.
When she was in the mood, she would make a pot of strong coffee, light up the first of many cigarettes, and talk about her youth. Born to a teenaged mother, Laura grew up in Detroit in the 1930s. The town was surrounded by dense woods, and Laura spent hours alone, exploring the forest and observing nature. She told me about the hobo camps hidden in the woods, the hungry men who gathered at night to share what little food and whiskey they had. Although frequently at odds with her parents, she spoke fondly of an aunt who was a kindred spirit. “I was in such a hurry to grow up,” she chuckled through a cloud of cigarette smoke. “As soon as I could I left Detroit and came out west.”
She was writing then, but too shy to show her poems to anyone. Sometime during the 1950s, Laura met the poet Jack Gilbert, with whom she had a long and tempestuous relationship. Gilbert dedicated his first book, Views of Jeopardy, which won the Yale Younger Poets award in 1962, to “Laura Ulewicz, a kind of dragon”. It was a woman, also interested in Gilbert, who had Laura committed to Napa State Hospital as Laura struggled through a period of depression. Her tales of escape from the hospital, of trekking haphazardly from the West Coast home to Detroit, were frightening and poignant at the same time. She’d had electroshock therapy, and whole sections of her memory were erased. “Once I found myself in Phoenix. How the hell did I get to Phoenix?” Often she would stop in the middle of a particularly harrowing story, stare into space, and forget about me, wide-eyed and hanging on her every word, as the threads of memory refused to come together.
To my knowledge, Laura had never spent much time around kids before, and especially not teens. Her patience with me frequently ran thin, and though she clearly enjoyed my slavish devotion, I was, to quote Sue Murphy, “always there.” When school ended, my brother and I began our ten-week ritual of hanging around the house, eating enormous amounts of food, and complaining, while we gradually succumbed to the summertime blues. By the middle of summer, Laura and my father split up and Laura moved into the downstairs apartment. If I was lucky, she would let me come down and visit, but the strain between her and my father showed in her short temper. I was no longer welcome, and the long summer dragged slower than ever.
A few years ago, Laura told me that she had sent a poem out just once in her entire life, and it was rejected. From then on, she never submitted again, only offering poems if requested. I wonder at this weakness in a woman who was such a fighter. (As my father often quipped, “If there’s nothing to fight about, Laura will invent something.”)
As a result, her list of publications is smaller than it should be – just one book of poems, The Inheritance, came out in 1967. Her poems appeared in a variety of poetry journals, including Genesis West, Gargoyle, Massachusetts Review, and Poetry Review (UK), as well as the anthologies A Different Beat, A Gallery of Women and One-Eighty-Five. Some of her poems were featured in a series of broadsides displayed throughout the Bay Area in the 1960s.
Richard Peabody’s A Different Beat includes nine of Laura’s poems. Read as a group, they create an elegiac mood, alternating between strong images, as in “Manhattan as a Japanese Print:” “In spring there are no skyscrapers. / Invisible flowers bloom between tall menaces” and autobiographical lines, as in “Pinpoint,” Laura’s rueful compendium of the Beat Movement: “It was as if we could live exchanges of being / With egg cartons covering the cracks in the wall / Through which the wind was blowing.” Unlike many of her contemporaries, Laura did not write confessional poetry; most of the time, her poetry discourages a relationship between it and the reader, a sensibility it shares with the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop.
Many of the poems collected in A Different Beat start with images of the natural world, evoking an almost hallucinatory quality as in this stanza from “Letter Three:”
Stand where you will and think of the whales:
How they’ll not come ambling the Umbrian hills
or smile in your window, or nibble your grape leaves;
but tunneling where they must to make their waves
and break their waves to patterns of grape leaves,
they will evade you, as the sea evades you.
Through her use of repeated long vowel sounds she sets up a background for the wordplay of these lines. The question simmering beneath this ominous, dreamlike vision resolves in these lines from the last stanza:
When your last whale has died, you’ll still find left
this fierce deliberate sun which grows – from which
there is no ark, or no ark suitable –
till sun on the land and on the ocean, sun,
each summer day is a day of intolerant judgment.
Again, repetition, this time of short words – sun, ark, day – underscores the poems’ anarchic themes: disorder, decay, the simultaneous strength and vulnerability of nature and humans’ inability to prevent disaster. The judgment of summer days is devastating, and the lack of an ark tells us that there is no escape from some impending cataclysm. By using the symbol of the whales – as bearers of mysteries vulnerable in their great size – Laura evokes the Earth itself, subject to the same frailties as the whales.
“Letter Three” is, perhaps, anti-intellectual, a warning lacking compassion (“intolerant” indeed) but all the more effective for that lack. There is no heartbreak here, but a clear, if cold, study. Laura’s poems avoid all hints of emotional excess: instead, they deal with how to negotiate the world and its problems. The Beats were conspicuously public, trotting out their addictions, experiments and failures in poetry and thinly veiled fiction, yet these poems remain closed, like a fist curled around something precious. In “Pinpoint,” for example, the poet offers no therapeutic dictums in the opening lines “It came like light out of the walls, / Like sunny days, like judgment.” Laura describes the Beat movement as if it were a gigantic interruption, a metaphoric earthquake that moved the stale culture of the 1950s forward, both in time and place, a few important inches: “It came. / And I no longer wanted to be anything / But simple.” Reduce, ride it out, embrace it, but lightly – all movements need cool-eyed deconstruction.
Laura’s role as a member of the Beat movement was not limited to that of dispassionate observer, but many of her poems function as snapshots of that era, taken, it seems, when her subjects were least aware of being photographed. Her endnote to “Pinpoint” reads “Written in recollection of the days before a movement got stopped by being named and publicized too soon. A. G., who stayed sane through fame, B. K., who changed radically through speed, and 1010 Montgomery which was torn down.” A. G. and B. K. (Allen Ginsburg and Bob Kaufman; 1010 Montgomery was Ginsburg’s address in San Francisco when he wrote Howl) – one elevated by the Beat movement and the other destroyed by it – represent the extremes of experience that Laura was so adept at capturing.
After a few years, Laura and my father developed a close and lasting friendship. When he retired in 2000, my father bought a house in Locke not far from Laura’s (Locke is so small that all the houses are a few minutes’ walk from each other.) Laura drove my father to the store; he fixed her leaky shower. When I visited, I would take them to Wimpy’s, a burger place with mediocre food, a dock for fishing boats and a great view of the east side of Mt. Diablo. It was at Wimpy’s that Laura told me her favorite poem was Poe’s “Annabelle Lee” (was she pulling my leg?) and recited the first poem she’d ever written, something about a pussy cat. “It was published in the newspaper,” she laughed, her pale blue eyes gazing at the scenery outside the fly-specked windows.
Laura spent twenty-five years as a social worker for the County of Sacramento. In her free time she wrote, gardened, walked her dogs, and held several positions on the Locke town council. On the weekends she worked at one of Locke’s several art galleries. After thirty years of tending, her garden was a sight to behold: pink cabbage roses draped the weathered wooden fence, and flowers mixed with vegetables in a charming, untidy potager. A metal shed held her tools, and Laura spent sultry nights on its dirt floor, echoing her days as a young woman sleeping in Golden Gate Park.
Laura’s smoking finally took its toll. She had always been a sturdy, robust woman who consumed quantities of her own home-grown vegetables, but in her seventies she developed emphysema and heart disease. In September of 2007, Laura landed in the hospital, but after a short stay insisted on returning home, against her doctor’s orders. In October, a neighbor found Laura’s body slumped in a corner of her beloved house, under a bookshelf crammed with clay pots, papers, spider webs, dust and books.
A few years before she died, I asked Laura over a Wimpy’s burger to tell me what poetry meant to her. She waited for a long moment before she replied, “It’s been the focus of my life. So many times I started revising, and before I knew it the sun was coming up because I’d been writing all night.” I heard the unspoken statement – that this precarious existence she’d led, dressing herself from the thrift store, living hand-to-mouth most of her life – had been the price she paid for poetry, and that it had all been worth it.
She gazed out the window at the water, the fishing boats floating near the dock, and the ducks moving away from the shore. Her hands, wrinkled and spotted, lay on the table. The dirt caked under her nails spoke of the years she’d spent working flowers – and poems – out of wet soil.
Laura wrote the following as an accompaniment for a painting displayed in a Locke art show:
The town of Locke put up a memorial for Laura that bears the simple inscription: “Laura Ulewicz 1930-2007 Poet Gardener Friend.” She would have enjoyed its spare summarization of her seventy-seven years on this earth, I think, finding the irony in what the lines leave out: Laura Ulewicz, a kind of dragon, lived here fiercely, loved the river and its black mud, and left us with her tough, clear poems.
About the Author
Erica Goss is the Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, CA. She is the author of Wild Place (Finishing Line Press 2012). She won the 2011 Many Mountains Moving Poetry Contest and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2010 and 2013. She writes The Third Form, a column about video poetry, for Connotation Press. Recent work appears in Lake Effect, The Red Wheelbarrow, Passager, Main Street Rag, Pearl, Rattle, Wild Violet, and Comstock Review, among others. Please visit her website: www.ericagoss.com.