ERIC WALKER (1964 – 1994)
IT BEGAN as a kind of fairytale life in poetry: the young man from the provinces arrives in San Francisco to meet his mentors, the Beat poets of San Francisco and Berkeley. It was 1981, he was seventeen, he slept on floors, begged food, bummed cigarettes, and in the morning left behind scribbled poems that delighted and amazed his hosts. These early years were filled with promise, joy, and exuberance, but there followed in his twenties a chaotic descent into mental illness. The poetry and madness, in classic fashion, often went hand in hand. A dozen years and five hundred poems later, he was found hanging in a prison cell, aged 29. (1)
I knew Eric mainly by reputation, having moved away from San Francisco by the time he arrived. Stories about him were swapped around by other poets from the very moment he appeared. I came to know his work from the five marvelous chapbooks published in his lifetime by Tisa Walden’s Deep Forest press. (2) I met him on occasional visits, and like most I was struck by his ethereal beauty, physical frailty, emotional intensity, and of course the poems that flowed from him so naturally, sometimes two or three a day. At any given moment he would retreat to a corner of the room where he would gather the ideas and images swirling around his head, and he would commit poem to paper in about the same amount of time it takes us to read them. Each poem is a kind of emission, an unbroken flow from start to finish.
Then he would disappear for a month or two, returning to his mother’s home near Santa Cruz, or his father’s cabin in Richardson Grove, on California’s central coast. During this time he would type up his poems and assemble them into individual volumes of two or three hundred pages each. (3) These visits back home also gave him a chance to wander in his beloved redwoods, where he found his inspiration and solace: “I learned poetry from watching nature,” he once wrote. Ecological imbalance is one of the chief concerns in his poetry, and in the final year or two of his life it became his main concern, spurred by his witnessing of the horrific destruction of old growth redwood forests in California.
His school years were desultory and filled with boredom, aside from his extensive readings. An exception was a first prize in a local poetry competition, which he won with a poem titled “Sweet Carrion.” Walker’s most enduring influence was Rimbaud; at fourteen he encountered a biography of the poet, The Day on Fire by James Ramsey Ullman, and he immediately understood his calling. At time he considered himself the reincarnation of Rimbaud, and the “disordering” of the senses became an imperative.
Eric’s first direct mentor in life was California’s great poet of the primal forces of nature, the Dominican, Brother Antoninus (William Everson). Eric sought him out at the University of California at Santa Cruz, monitoring his classes while still in high school. He quickly earned Everson’s esteem, immortalized in an enthusiastic comment scrawled on a class paper that he had a promising future as a poet—an artifact Eric saved his entire life. Eric never enrolled at UCSC; his grades in high school were poor and so were his economic resources. But he told a friend that if you pretended to be a student everyone just assumed you were, and for a time he even lived in a college dormitory.
A pilgrimage to San Francisco and Berkeley was inevitable, and within a short time after his arrival in 1981 he met all the poets of North Beach and Telegraph Avenue and joined their society. It was a remarkable time for poetry, with many of the principal figures of the San Francisco Renaissance still active and accessible, and a vital younger generation who followed and honored them, in their own very different and unique ways. It was the classic La Vie Boheme, with the cafes crowded by day and the bars by night. There were regular open mikes and communal dinners. Little magazines included Beatitude and a monthly newspaper, Poetry Flash. Small presses included Tisa Walden’s Deep Forest, Kaye McDonough’s Greenlight Press, and of course Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books. Eric dove straight in.
He was taken seriously from the start. Amongst his elder poets he was held in particular esteem by Bob Kaufman, Philip Lamantia, and Howard Hart. Younger poets who mentored and took him in were Neeli Cherkovski, Paul Landry, Rosemary Manno, Jack Mueller, Julia Vinograd, Tisa Walden, Kristen Wetterhahn, Rudy Jon Tanner and many others. Eric was lucky to have a large support system, since even a day or two with him was enough to leave one frazzled. He was a regular at the weekly readings at the Spaghetti Factory on Grant Avenue, and he made the rounds of half a dozen other open mikes over the course of the week. He also read his poems on the street for food or money. Over the years he was banned from many of these venues for unruly behavior, in one case setting his poetry manuscript on fire as he was reading it.
He seems to have absorbed nearly the entire arc of post-war poetry in The Bay Area. The Sufi wisdom of Daniel Moore’s two City Lights books (Burnt Heart and Dawn Visions) are an important influence, as is the surrealist vision of Philip Lamantia. He absorbs Kirby Doyle’s rugged poems of the California continent before the arrival of man, and likewise Howard Hart’s elegant lyricism drawn from the French poets Reverdy and Eluard. Even Richard Brautigan, living in North Beach but largely inaccessible, makes an appearance: “just so Brautigan in his trout-fishing jacket/ had a vision of American weeds, transfigured/ the sleight of hand of a magician in hiding.”
Walker’s tribute to Bob Kaufman (“The Ancient Rain”) reprinted in this volume is a fine snapshot of this period. It is also one of the only first-hand accounts of this remarkable African-American jazz poet. Walker is, in my view, the main protégée and successor to Bob Kaufman, and that in itself is important. Walker’s deep devotion to the elder poet is evident, as is his insight into the many forces that brought about this wrecked but still defiant individual–forces which one day would also prove Eric’s own undoing: poverty, police, jail, mental asylums, and the mutilating forces of rampant capitalism upon the weak and vulnerable. The struggle for freedom and social justice is vital to Walker’s poetry, and it is rooted deep within his psyche. The poem–no matter how whimsical–was always an act of personal and mental transformation intended to bring about the same in the reader. And like Kaufman, nearly all of Eric’s poems are in fact quite accurate descriptions of real events, subtlety veiled behind obliquely surreal imagery.
Walker’s many madhouse poems address the breakdown of human worth and social value with a clarity that to my mind is only equaled by the poetry of John Wieners from the early 1970s, when the Boston poet became an activist for the rights of mental patients, following numerous incarcerations. Walker knew the work of John Wieners well, and his poem “The Asylum of Dull and Dark Sad-Eyed Angels” is his own version of Wieners’ powerful poem “Children of the Working Class.” The condition of insanity (his own and the world’s) is a constant theme in Walker’s verse. Of the asylum poems in this collection, most were composed during more or less rational periods of recuperation. Interestingly, however, are quite a number of sprawling texts not included in this volume that offer a view from the other side of the mirror: prose poems and manifestos written during periods of derangement, where the schiz-analysis of society and its ills are presented with frightening power and poignancy. Cruel and dangerous confrontations with the law (shoplifting food, vagrancy) and the mental health establishment (incarcerations, medication) inspired many remarkably cogent manifestos from this period where he explores the dynamics of debt, war, media propaganda, and government control—particularly as it bears upon the powerless and vulnerable, the artists and dreamers. In these works Walker repeatedly evokes the figure of Artaud, whose work he was acquainted with from Jack Hirschman’s City Lights anthology. Hopefully these challenging texts and manifestos will be published in the coming years.
Another influence Walker absorbed was the popular music of the 1960s and 70s, which contained much fine writing that brought poetry back to its Troubadour roots: Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison, Syd Barrett, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, are all cited in his work. By far his most important influence in this regard is Bob Dylan, whose gentle lyricism, vivid imagery, and ardent desire is everywhere evident. Those familiar with Dylan’s work will find subtle references throughout this book, particularly to the albums Desire and Street Legal, with their imagery of Tarot and the occult, or the Gospel albums, forged in a fiery Christian mysticism first awakened in Eric by his teacher Brother Antoninus. There were years when Eric consciously adopted Dylan’s style and dress, and in times of crisis Dylan becomes the touchstone, evidenced by several poems in this book written in the form of a fan letter (the epistle, or poem-as-letter, is one of his favorite forms). I think it is fair to say that Rimbaud, Kaufman, and Dylan, were his holy trinity.
There is always a cogent political world view in Walker’s poetry, even at his most irrational or should I say especially at his most irrational. Like Allen Ginsberg’s epic “The Fall of America,” or Bob Kaufman’s “The Ancient Rain,” Walker’s poetry describes the last gasps of the American empire, choking on militarism, media brainwashing, and petrochemical pollution: “The light is wisdom, night is falling on America, /could it be we are losing our wisdom?” In his poem “The Tao in America,” it is expressed as a need for a yin-yang balance between Industry and Nature, Capital and Emotions. “Poem for Jesse” (i.e., Jesse Jackson) presages the election of a black president. And in “American Roads,” circa 1993, he eerily predicts our present moment: “…on the carpeted floors/of Jerry Lewis’s giant telethon, corporate stars fight/ for the presidency, weird Trump pulls out a flush-straight/ against the hijinx of passionate parties…” The brutality of power is his final subject.
His final years were spent in institutions and halfway houses. Often for months at a time his only visitor was his mother. On March 13, 1994, Eric was found hanged in his cell at the Humboldt County Jail, aged 29. He was the third inmate to die there under suspicious circumstances, and eventually a wrongful death verdict was issued to his family. His work fell into obscurity for the next two decades, remembered only by those who knew him, many of whom are now themselves passed on.
Eric Walker’s entire surviving output is a little over 500 poems, and several hundred pages of prose, all now housed at the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley. Not every poem in the archive is successful, but every poem is stamped with his own unique sensibility and style. One must at times make allowances for the imitations and experimentations, or some of the excessively sentimental poems written in the throes of love. In the end, he is a poet of poetry itself.
Some of these poems were publishedduring Eric’s lifetime by the poet Tisa Walden, in Beatitudes and Deep Forest. The rest were preserved by Eric’s mother, Diane Walker Murray, who stored them safely for two decades, before they came into my hands through a truly strange set of experiences. I was living for several months in Kathmandu in 2014, and on the very evening I completed editing Harry Smith’s lectures on Native American cosmography, there was an auspicious full moon (Hanuman Jayatri) coinciding with a lunar eclipse. That night I dreamt of Eric: I was walking around the stupa in Bodnath with hundreds of other devotees. Suddenly I spied Eric up ahead wearing monk’s robes. I was shocked to see him after so many years. I caught up with him and confronted him. “I’m fine now,” he said. “Everything is alright with me.” Then I lost him in the crowd. It was a strange dream because in the previous twenty years I had hardly thought of him at all.
When I returned to the U.S. a few weeks later, a psychic named Laura Lynne Jackson told me that a friend of mine—a young poet who died in despair twenty years earlier—had been reborn an incarnate lama in Nepal and was now living a happy life, having repaid a cosmic debt. The following day I received a call from Eric’s mother, whom I did not know (she had been given my name by Tisa Walden). She told me she had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and would I accept a shipment all of his manuscripts and notebooks? Over the next two years Eric’s brother, Scott Walker, diligently typed all of the work, and together we edited this volume. Thus, in this strange way, this book came to be.
(1) For an extensive account of Walker’s illness and death, see Richard Rawles’ excellent “The Fall of Euphorion: The Wrongful Death of Eric Walker,” Spectacle, vol 1, no 2, Spring, 1988, p 37-58. Reprinted on www.bigbridge.org. Rawles, a social worker and mental health professional, was also a personal friend of Walker’s from the age of fourteen until his death at twenty-nine. Walker was incarcerated because he violated a restraining order. Many of his friends doubted whether his death was in fact a suicide. The truth will never be known. His family was given a wrongful death settlement.
(2) The books are: Night’s Garden (1983), Helen (1986), Jonah’s Song (1988), Through the Day (1990), Notes on a Surrealist (1993). The Deep Forest archives are housed at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.
(3) Some of these volumes are titled: Schizophrenia, Hearts and Freeways, The Rational Response, Subterranean Heart, Hell’s Children, The Heart’s Assembly, Thoughts on Dying. They are preserved in the order he left them, at the Bancroft Library.