In Memory of Fielding Dawson

Norman Weinstein

Arriving at a class I was teaching on the writers of Black Mountain College – this is upstate New York in the 70s – Dawson (1930-2002, so ripe in mid-life then) eyed the students in this room so resembling prison spaces he would teach in during his later years, and settled in, perhaps his opening remark a quick (and seen retrospectively just) dismissal of Martin Duberman’s history of the College. But what else could I assign students then? Nodded with approval when a student mentioned that required readings included Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, Creeley, M.C. Richards. . .and Dawson. And off he went. Sharply nuanced, textured talk, synapses-quick- shutter-snap, jump-cuts, ever the New Yorker, but never fit for those pages. My students wanted to know how much of his The Black Mountain Book was literally true, really? Dawson soared past such shallow probes. Talked about Olson’s demand for attention to all possible planes, plains, plain, of experience, moment by moment.

This memory needs a quick turn, under a spotlight’s glare. Like others coming of age in the 60s, I was politically naïve to the extent to which I actually believed this course was supposed to be one of a sequence, as if any State (!) university would support such curriculum. Of the soul. Of conscience. Of vibrant thinking convulsing into the poetry of prose. And Dawson read this misplaced delusion in my class syllabus, in the student’s halting idealism, but gave generously nevertheless in that moment of collective let’s pretend, as he later gave for 17 years to prisoners who were his lucky students when all other luck abandoned them.

Of all the writers of his generation, particularly those swayed by Olson’s Projective Verse, I credit Dawson with the greatest emotional vitality, tautly built, relentlessly musical prose, and refined conscience, the greatest precision in line after line of his writing spotting where conscience wakes or sleeps. Somehow he understood Robert Duncan’s “Opening of the Field” was more than an aesthetic opening. It was a clearing where a new American consciousness of moral art might be sighted. More than signing an anti-war petition or refusing tea at The White House. Dawson climbed into the belly of every possible beast by teaching ex-murderers rather than the coddled brats pursuing MFAs at Bernard or Bard. And brought?

A streetwise finesse, dark humor, and exquisite timing in his prose “sketches.” Remember that Hemingway found his short fiction model in Turgenev’s A Sportman’s Sketches. How does a “sketch” move differently than conventional story?

Different necessities constellate. A story invites a conventional time flow, however gracefully, or gracelessly, the river of text, dammed, damned fragmented, or “free”, flows. A sketch, in the speed in which a dot becomes a line in the hands of a gifted draftsman, as Dawson was, a sketch gives illusion of the atemporal , a favored phrase of his, the energetic atemporal.

Explaining why no one ever evoked the sound of a Miles Davis, or any contemporary jazz so vividly, that improvised trumpet line mirrored in Dawson’s sketch of that musical, jazz energy, syncopating his writing.

No writer of fiction of his generation was so shamefully neglected for reasons unknown. Except Dawson demands total attention every second, every sentence. And style is the name of the game that carried the day so Dawson lost, that superficial a sellout. Welcome is an Updike with tin ear, bent, apparently incapable, or unwilling, to explore any theme more (or less) than divorce.

Dawson’s oeuvre demands a comprehensive anthology, a Fielding Dawson Reader. Something from the early Krazy Kat stories, slices of the heroes who were his teachers, Franz Kline and Charles Olson, the youthful memories of Tiger Lilly and Mandalay Dream, and selections from his stories alchemizing his invaluable, daredevil experiences teaching creative writing to prisoners.

Of particular importance is the last book of stories Dawson completed before his death in 2002, The Land of Milk and Honey: A Big Little Book. It might not attract the readership it deserves since instead of Dawson’s usual publisher, Black Sparrow Press, it was issued by Jerry Kelly’s tiny XOXOX Press in Ohio. Twenty stories, with a baker’s dozen among his best ever. Meaning a major achievement by any national or global measure. The utter bleak hilarity of the title tale, told twice, bookending the volume. Take one: a writer meeting his double in the eyes of a homeless
soul at a 7-Eleven, both on their way to the land of milk and honey (if only? could it be?).

Then take two: the book concludes with the opening story repeated verbatim – then extended into a tale of a moment of redemption from expected gang violence. Not a cheap petition to stop the violence, but a dot stretching into a line, vivid, electrically modulating sine, sign, extending to a horizon.

God, I’ll miss Dawson. Those who write with even a hint of conscience don’t know how to swing a single chorus. How to draw a line in pencil across a sketch pad like a lightning strike. How to extend that sketch beyond the earth’s unforgiving tug.