Geof Huth

There is Nothing but Sunlight and Shadow in the Open Street

          4 October 2005

A week ago, I was sitting in a hotel room with David Baptiste Chirot, one of the great visual poets of our time, talking about his life and his art. It was a tumultuous experience in a quiet but insistent way. Chirot has a life like a movie from the 1970s, one filled with revelation and surprise and not ending as happily as we would like. Yet, somehow, uplifting, impressive, satisfying, unavoidable. We would be emptier without it.

For a couple of hours before we met, David and I traded voicemails and then direct conversation over our cellphones, trying to connect. (Only connect.) David was in search of an apartment, a new place to live, a sense of independence, a place to be, a home. I had the time. I could wait. Eventually, he made it to my room, and the first sentence he said to me in person was

Oh, this is an non-smoking room!

Which indeed it was. David was obviously a big smoker, as many former drug addicts are. Some addiction, it seems, must hang on—even as this one fights against David’s plans to quit. And that is part of tonight’s, part of last week’s, story—the story of how David lived his life, a life full of drama and movement and drugs, a life that eventually landed him on the streets, a life that was necessary because it made possible his art. I have trouble regretting my past, because I realize that the slightest of changes might have changed my life utterly and left me without my family, my job, my life. Without being laid off in 1990, I wouldn’t have the job I have today. Without living in the lower shadow of the Altiplano in Bolivia, I probably would never have been a visual poet. Without my father, despite his faults, I would never have become the hyper-verbal creature I am.

If I appreciate the end result, I have to accept the trip here. And I hope that is what David feels.

The Visual Poetry and Left Hand of David Baptiste Chirot, Holiday Inn Milwaukee City Centre, Room 923, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (27 Sep 2005)

As we spoke, the sun was setting into Lake Michigan, was streaming into the room horizontally, a broad band of bright light. You can see here how the sun is hitting the pages of David’s rubBEings, his own special brand of visual poem, which depends on frottage (the rubbing of texture onto the page) for its creation. His left hand clenched in a fist, David is flipping through pages and pages of his visual poems. An archivist’s nightmare, he is carrying hundreds of his unique visual poems with him, laid within dogeared folders, stuffed into a thick binder, and zippered into a heavy knapsack. Some of the poems show wear along the edges of the sheets, but my attention is on the contents of the page, to the mastery that Chirot has developed at rubbing meaning onto a page.

David Harris—for that is Chirot’s birth name, though no longer his legal name—was born in Lafayette, Indiana, in 1953, but his family moved quite a bit when he was young. To Goettingen, West Germany, in 1956; Chicago, 1957; Logan, Utah, 1959 (imagine, for a second, this bundle of energy and production in the Mormon state of Utah); Hannover, New Hampshire, 1959; and Norwich, Vermont, in 1962. The last two are intertwined in David’s life. His family lived in Vermont, but his father taught across the border in New Hampshire (at Dartmouth)—the border between New Hampshire and its physical anagram, Vermont, marking the border between two ways of being. It is Vermont, though, that David thinks of as home, as much as any of us can claim a home.

David Baptiste Chirot, Visual Poems (27 Sep 2005)

The process of David’s creation of his rubBEings is to wander the streets of Milwaukee—which feels to me now like the true home of every poet in America—in search of textures (text, textile, and context) for his poems. He takes with him his sheaves of paper—different sizes, different shapes (rectangular and square), different levels of quality—and takes out a lumber crayon (essentially, a giant China marker) and creates. He tells me on this day that his source of lumber crayons has recently begun to carry these in a few colors besides black. For that reason, there are red and yellow highlights on one of the texts above. This is a new frontier for David. To a layperson, this might sound like a small change, but the opportunity to include color will probably push David to ever deeper wells of creation.

And a year in France, in Arles, where he didn’t attend high school but instead learned French the way we usually do: sitting upon the giant knee of the language. The family returned to Vermont after this year abroad, but this simple visit to France, which gave him the opportunity to cohabitate with a foreign language, was probably an essential turning point in his life. It may be the key to that life. When he was 16, David left home with the money he had accumulated at his teenager’s job and traveled to France, so he could visit the Cinémateque in Paris and see different films all the time. There, he tells me, he met Godard, Truffaut, and Anaïs Nin (meeting the last by literally running into her).

The year was 1969, and the world was still unstable everywhere. David ended up working with radicals to build bombs, and he says they successfully blew up two police vans. “People vanished from the streets.” Once when he was arrested, the person next to him was beaten to death by police. David was arrested multiple times for “suspicion of false identity” because the French could not believe that he could be American and speak French so well. Arrested for consorting with an illegal organization (Basque separatists). Arrested on suspicion of terrorism. In France, Germany, Poland. The years changed into the mid-1970s, and he was still in Europe.

David Baptiste Chirot and One of His Clay Impression Paintings (27 Sep 2005)

Suddenly, he quotes Henry Miller to me: “What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say, literature.”

That defines Chirot’s art. He is a literary man. His visual poems are muscular, imaginative, intelligent, and literary, even. But he is not a literary gentleman. He is of the street, on the street, in the street. His is a rough art, but delicate, refined, a weird amalgamation of impulses that reflect his life. A life that is one of street and study.

There has always been a mode of David’s visual poetry that I could not figure out. At first, I thought they were frottages like the rest of his oeuvre, but they looked different, although they were obviously related to the frottages. David calls these “clay impression paintings,” and they are a kind of reverse frottage. A frottage creates darker colors on the page where textures rise off level surfaces; a clay impression painting creates areas of whiteness, blanks, where an incision into clay refuses to transfer pigment to the page. What David does is take a lump of clay, shape it into a human form (a head, a body), and presses shapes into the soft clay. (Imagine a human being, lumpen, molded by the hand of God.) He then inks the soft surface of the clay and presses these against a page, producing a human figure encrusted with text.

With his middle finger, the longest of the five, he points at one of his clay impression paintings.

Some of the Tools and Artworks of David Baptiste Chirot, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (27 Sep 2005)

We all have different methods of creation. David’s are simply a bit more chaotic in appearance from the outside. He takes out a pocketful of equipment from his jeans—lumber crayons in different colors and sizes (some but nubs), matches, spare change—and he tosses them onto a pile of frottages and some copy art that reminds me of the work of Bob Cobbing, a visual poet David knew personally. With these small bits of colored wax, a few sheets of paper, textures, and imagination, David creates most of his art.

David ended up in Dartmouth against his desires. He dropped out, returned, was kicked out. He met his wife, a Mohawk, at Dartmouth, and they were married in 1976 in the Catholic Church, and then they moved to Boston. Eventually, David ended up writing movie, music, and book reviews for the local papers of Boston and interviewed film actors and directors, musicians, and others. He had a career in the works. He and his wife divorced, and a drug dealer moved in with him.

(Originally, as the story progressed—because no real story is told in a straight line—I thought that this was a turning point in his life, a turning towards drugs. But I was only half-right. David’s story is that he calls himself David Baptiste Chirot because that regal name came to him in an opium dream as a teenager in his family’s house. Now, I ask you, is this man destined for the enticing poetry of destruction opened to us by Coleridge and concluded by the stories in A. Alvarez’ A Savage God? or is he a master storyteller? “In Kubla Khan. . . .”)

David found himself working two jobs and taking drugs: heroin, speed. He counted 783 pills in his possession one day. Yet he never missed a day of work. Rarely slept much. Actually, he took on more jobs.

David Baptiste Chirot, “open site” (2005)

David shows me a new series of frottages, a sequence, a book, in the process of being created. The screens of this series will tell the story of the French conquest of the Midwest and of the natives upon that soil. This is a story we almost don’t know, even though the remnants of the story are left behind in the place names from the Upper Midwest to Louisiana, following the Mississippi like an exclamation point to its conclusion.

This new series is a reimagining by David of the rubBEing. There is a softness to these rare in his other pieces. He captures the grain of wood as the background for each of these pieces, and he writes a careful story of few words. I am stunned into silence as I flipped through these pages, and I shoot a picture of each of these as David speaks. Occasionally, I take a picture of him. He is a wiry man, maybe even more so than I am, but he is remarkably strong. The grip of his handshake in among the stiffest I’ve ever felt.

Maybe the real turning point for David was around 1985 when he stopped taking drugs and started doing collages. At the same time, his friends, other drug addicts, were giving up heroin and turning into Reaganauts. With that going on, how could David tell the difference between living in a world of drugs and living outside that world?

He married his second wife on Bastille Day in 1986 in Boston. She was the person who suggested that he use his dreamed name as his real name, and thus David Lawrence Harris became David Baptiste Chirot. After they married, the couple moved back to Dartmouth, where David finally finished his bachelor’s degree. Afterwards, David won a fellowship in 1989 to the Modern Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee. He completed his master’s in two years, and finished two years of his doctoral studies. Then his funding ran out, or so he thought, and he dropped out temporarily, returned temporarily, then left.

David Baptiste Chirot, Holiday Inn Milwaukee City Centre, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (27 Sep 2005)

David Baptiste Chirot is thoughtful as he speaks. There is a deep intelligence to him, as well as a deep connection to the world at his fingertips. He often speaks quickly—the stories spilling out of him like entrails out of a gutted sheep—but not always. He pauses sometimes to think. He tells me he is telling me too much about his life, but that it is about the art. I agree, but the life illuminates the art. The life gives us hints about the life. David’s story is sad, finally. He has struggled with drug addiction and alcoholism.

In the end, it is just the art.

Or maybe the turning point for Chirot was 1995 when he found the Norton Anthology of Post-Modern American Poetry, and a whole new world opened up to him: In 1996, he left his Ph.D. program for good and began working on visual poetry and mailart. He attended the almost mythical “Eyerhymes” conference in Edmonton in 1997, and there he met jwcurry, Clemente Padin, Paul Dutton, Bob Cobbing, Gerald Janecek, and Dick Higgins, a great selection of contemporaries for a visual poet.

David Baptiste Chirot, “DANGER” (2005)

What it is about the clay impression paintings I like is that their texts are obvious yet difficult to read and orphic in their meaning. And their human forms. Their simple humanity.

By the next year (1998), the world went dark. David had a serious spirtual crisis, began drinking again, and started a struggle he fights up till today.

He tells me that he felt dead for a long time and separated from the rest of the world. He now lives in the West City Central section of Milwaukee, in a “transitional living” environment. He must call in if he’s going to be home late. He can have no visitors, so we meet in my hotel room. The neighborhood around his house is filled with violence, drug addiction, prostitution, and the violence he describes is more than anyone should have to see and hear and bear.

After we finish talking, we look for a place to eat. There’s nowhere to go. We end up in a Dunkin’ Donuts, where they have soup, chili, bagels, coffee, something approximating a real meal. I buy David this most inexpensive of dinners, and we eat there under the glaring fluorescent tubes, with the Pakistani owner still trying to figure out what we were asking for, and everyone else is black. This is a city like my city, and close enough to my own neighborhood, which is the most racially integrated place I’ve ever seen. Everyone here is a street person, though not necessarily always of the street. The streets are dark and fairly quiet, the hand of some clock somewhere is inching towards midnight. We finish up our meals, and we are satisfied. We are simple people. David is more thankful than he should be for this meal, my tiny gift to him for what he has given me. We walk outside into the night, and the air is cool, comfortable. David must catch a bus home. I have a half a block to walk to my hotel. We say good-bye and turn away from each other. He goes into the streets where he’s lived, where he makes his art. Into the lonely Milwaukee night.

When I’m visiting with visual poets in their homes (and, remember, Chirot’s home is the street), I often warn them that I am a journalist. Nothing is off the record unless it is. But this story of his makes me ache, fills me with a dull pain for which the only antidote is his own exemplary art. I think David Baptiste Chirot’s art has saved him as much as it has saved me.

David, connaissez-vous cet phrase de Voltaire?:

ecr. l’inf.

Geof Huth is a visual and other poet who blogs at dbqp: visualizing poetics. The above piece was originally posted there, in a slightly different version, but later withdrawn.

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