Finite Time and Words

Delving into the words and mind of writer Sam D’Allesandro.

I sucked in my breath as I tore open the envelope covering the poetry book I had purchased online for $260. In 1983, I was born into this world at two pounds, one ounce, and Sam D’Allesandro published a book — now in my hands — of poetry and performance piece poems entitled Slippery Sins. I had browsed every used bookstore and online search for two years or more to find it.

This book was the only one of his that saw in print in his life time; the others — The Zombie Pit, a collection of his short stories, Real: The Letters of Mina Harker and Sam D’Allesandro, his correspondence with writer Dodie Bellamy, and The Wild Creatures: The Collected Stories of Sam D’Allesandro, a fuller and re-edited collection of his short stories — were all published in the decades after his death at age 31.

In a vague memory of indeterminate time that I’m sure Sam D’Allesandro would approve of, I was in the Philadelphia GLBT bookstore Giovanni’s Room when I saw the title: The Wild Creatures. I thought, A collection of fantasy sci-fi writing? Cool … But, wait — the subtitle was “The Collected Stories of Sam D’Allesandro.” All of a writer’s stories in a scant 157 pages? And “D’Allesandro”? Isn’t that the name of a Warhol guy?

(Sam D’Allesandro, born Richard Anderson, took his new name as a tribute to Joe D’Allesandro, the Warholian actor — not so much as an anonymous pen name but as a mischievous link to edginess and ready-made art; D’Allessandro the writer claimed to be the son of D’Allesandro the actor. The actor was quite ticked off at the writer when he found out someone appropriated his name.)

I flipped through the book, intrigued, and filed it away in my head to check out later. The only thing harder to find than a good, non-masquerading-as-erotica gay novel in the early 2000s was any collection (good or otherwise) of gay short stories.

Erratic time continued, and at some point I bought and read The Wild Creatures. Sam D’Allesandro — born in 1956, died in 1988 of AIDS — was an unfinished writer. Part of a San Francisco movement called “New Narrative,” wherein writers sought to self consciously manipulate language in fiction to include biographical reflections of their own real lives, a physicality of the human body, and an interweaving of imagined fiction as a construction of writing about the fictional self. Awkward, no?

Sam D’Allesandro wrote poems, then switched to stories; he was convinced (according to the introduction by writer Kevin Killian, his friend and executor) that those were read more, increasing the chances his work might be read by his idols: Patti Smith, Yoko Ono, Jean Genet, Andy Warhol, James Baldwin, Laura Nyro, Willem de Kooning, Dory Previn, David Bowie, Nina Simone, William Burroughs, Bob Dylan, Kathy Acker, Brian Eno, Leonard Cohen. A writer who had passion for musicians as equally as writers? I like this guy already, I thought.

Entering and stumbling into the opening paragraph of the first story in The Wild Creatures, “Nothing Ever Just Disappears,” I scratched my head at these sentences:

I didn’t know exactly what he meant by “accessible.” He said he liked people who were, because he wasn’t. He said a lot of things that I didn’t exactly understand, or that seemed to carry connotations other than those most obvious. Or then again maybe they didn’t.

Oh, Sam D’Allesandro and his scintillating and infuriating rhythmic style of contradictory, covering-all-bases thoughts. For it is truly a style: D’Allesandro’s stories, novellas, and sketches are all from a first person point of view and drowning in thoughts, primarily about queer men of the 1980s vacillating through relationships, analyzing attachments and the human body, constantly questioning. Though seemingly repetitious, the self-obsessed “I” authorship always starts from the same place but digs deeper and deeper in each story; they feel like they could be different points of a singular life. Every story is entranced with the first person POV’s — left or right, up or down — insinuating life’s variations.

Just like D’Allesandro’s own back and forth writing, I alternately found this pulsing style to be magnetic and screw turning: This is amazing writing!/If I read one more “this or that” rumination, I’m going to hurl this book across the room!

Then I came upon this passage near the end of “Nothing Ever Just Disappears”:

Someone said the pain would go away, but I’m not sure that’s where I want it to go. It’s how I feel him most sharply. Without it, every move I make echoes because he’s not there to absorb me. I don’t like bouncing back at myself. A dead lover wants your soul, wants your life, and then your death too. And you give it, it’s the only way to feel anything again. Take the death as a lover and sleep with it and eat it and purge it and suck it back in quick. And finally, it’s no event, it’s nothing that happened, it’s just you: an anger and a beauty that never really goes away. Not something you can wait out as it disappears, nothing ever just really disappears.

I was sucked in, enraptured by the subtlety of emotions, the utter willingness to be naked and self effacing. Maybe because it was the first story I read in the collection, but those words are incantations burned in my mind now. I’ve been in love, I think, but never lost someone that I’ve been in love with. From D’Allesandro’s words, I know this is how it will be.

On and on I read, finishing this slight book in two days. I was drawn in — to people binding together in “Jane and Sam”:

At first Jane and I were repelled by our attraction to each other. We were afraid of it. We didn’t know what it meant. Then she taught me how to french-kiss. After that we never regained any control we might have had earlier … Maybe we were duplicates-each helping the other thrash a temporary identity out of the miasma we’d been born into. Neither of us seemed to fit in anywhere except with each other. …

To being reborn and renewed in “Giovanni’s Apartment” (and its homage to James Baldwin’s novel-literary coolness):

The bedroom was always red and dark, each color dissolving into the other, always night-deep, black, and empty. That’s the way I felt. It felt good. A lot fell away: my anxiety, my fear, my job, my apartment, my possessions, my need to create an existence. A new existence had already been created; all I had to do was slip into it. I started to feel alive again. My old life was stripped away like dead skin. … Each night, each time he killed me and revived me, a little more of my past slipped away, leaving me free to be happy for perhaps the first time ever.

To the quirky bizarreness of “Walking to the Ocean This Morning,” a one page utterance on the vulnerability found in surrendering to kinks in sex; to the comparison and devouring of memories and loves in “The Zombie Pit”:

… As if I’m some escaped idea that accidently fell out of someone. Someone who has voice, has visibility, has embodiment. All the things I seem to lack. … There’s a little animal inside of me. … Sometimes I think it’s made up of equal parts of Farrell, my mother, and LSD. Sid and I are its victims. There’s a little animal inside of me. It’s eating me. It’s building me each day. It starts with a blank lump and animates the person it wants from it. It controls me. It makes me do things. It won’t let me stop thinking about it. Other times I can’t think at all and I become like a small fire emitting a lot of sparks that pass for talking, sex, behavior. A walking zombie pit where anything can fall into me.

Being a writer is one of the last callings where looks truly do not matter. (Supposedly. I hope.) During D’Allesandro’s life, and after it, his looks were rhapsodized by his contemporaries as being so stunningly real that their capture by camera lessened them, like a bright deity fallen to the dusty earth. Slippery Sins contains no author photograph. The cover of The Zombie Pit bears a black and white photograph — a plain faced man in a white T-shirt and polyester suit jacket; head titled slightly to the left; gelled ’80s hair, leaving a whisper of shadow on one side of the face; full lips in a noncommittal straight line, threatening into mirth. All of these little idle twitches allow his eyes to enrapture like orbs of ice. The Zombie Pit was released in 1989, a year after D’Allesandro’s death.

The Wild Creatures: the Collected Stories saves the author photograph for the back of the book, again in a slightly-to-the-left pose, in an unbuttoned gasoline shirt, with an echo of the hiding smile. There’s a self-consciousness of allure. The black and white photo on the rough paper makes the upper head look faded pale, his tousled hair shot through with the absence of light. As if already half a ghost. The book was released in 2005, 17 years after his death.

In one picture, not published until 1997, he posed for photographer Robert Giard in January 1988, less than a month before his death. D’Allesandro’s friends barely saw him as AIDS took him, isolating him and his incandescent looks and his last writings:

I’ve forgotten the meaning of everything except my medication. Buried beneath layers of thin tissue, a refugee on a field of darkness, I am isolated, confused, as white noise fills my ears. Only the world inside my imploding body is real, like watching on film as I disintegrate. I clap my hands at this new game that already bores me. I’m a pumpkin caving in, in a tunnel without return that grows narrower all the time.

He wears a T-shirt and V-neck sweater; his head lays on a couch, in left side profile. The hair is unkempt, swirling around on the top like an errant sprite, the skin fervently hugs the bone of his skull and jagged chin and neck, his lips part to show teeth bared in a small smile or a plea. Only the left eye is seen, no longer staring at us or enticing us, it is looking towards the camera, or beyond it. Toward his final stories? Or beyond — beyond those? Pictures of a writer. Inspirational, shallowness of the desire to want the stories to give us something, and hope that those words will mean something more than us.

Sam D’Allesandro’s writing is imperfect, repetitious in varying degrees of success, but finally unfinished in the best way. Here was a writer — with a passion for viewing, to a fanatical degree, how we think and emote; unafraid to lay down the messiness of human emotion in text — cut short. His last story he set down on a tape recorder (transcribed for his final collection by Dodie Bellamy) with asides on further details and digressions he wanted to add in later. A writer losing to death, still wanting (or hoping?) to add more to a story, because there are always new ideas, new stories to tell. Screw death.

Except there it is, confining written words to audio and last breaths.

I ordered Slippery Sins, the poetry book put out by D’Allesandro in the year I was born, in a fever dream. Not quite believing I finally found it, and that it purports to be part of a limited number signed by the author. Calling my poet friends, I ask if I’m crazy to spend $260 on a poetry book.

Holding it in my hands, myth became reality. A slim, white book, the cover adorned only by a black and white ink drawing of two guys sitting at a table, facing away from each other, with D’Allesandro’s name below. Inside, a dedication: “this is for fritz and patti” — the first a friend and former lover, and the latter being Patti Smith, the punk music icon. Sam D’Allesandro wanted his friends and idols to read his words. Just like any of us.

My throat was dry, fingers buzzing as I searched for the signature. Flipping back to the front, I found it on the page opposite the front cover, in pencil. To the eye, entranced and widened in wonder, it appears to read, S(“am” being a fine line running together) D’All(“esan” is another fine line)dro 12/50. Sam D’Allesandro 12/50.

And I read the poems, and even ones that I like, as in “Word Whores”:

Zippering shut the open mouths
of gaping sentences, demanding
an ending for everything somewhere,
I wonder if the lines have said
at all what was intended. Sometimes
it’s as if they existed in dreams
where definitions change: a cat
now winged, or a stranger
suddenly becomes your mother,
and one thing often means another

I am sure it is not the best poem I’ve ever read, but there’s a line or two that makes me grin, and there’s a tiny spark of what is to come in his prose.

So I place Slippery Sins alongside the others, on a shelf between Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion and Haruki Murakami’s Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. Between two books of writers still in print and still publishing is the whole body of work of Sam D’Allesandro.

Article © 2010 by Chris Herrmann