We continue to welcome remembrances for famed Alaska writer John Haines. This one comes from Eric Heyne, who credits 49 Writers with helping him stay connected with the Alaska writing community during his nine months in Europe.
Fifty-four is not a bad age to see Paris for the first time. You have enough money to eat where you want to eat (within reason), enough patience to endure the agonizingly slow line at St. Chapelle (just barely), and still enough joi de vivre to keep saying, “Look at that! Look at that!” My daughter is lucky to be seeing this at the tender age of eleven, but she’ll have to come back before long anyway, in order to have her own version of it rather than her parents’. My mother is thrilled to have made it for a second time, and is already drawing up plans for a third. We watched An American in Paris in preparation for the trip, and thanks to Google I now know that Gene Kelly wasn’t the first person to claim that good Americans go to Paris when they die. I’m glad I didn’t have to wait that long, or be that good.
But not even the sparkle of Paris can keep me completely away from my email, and so it is that I learn of John Haines’ death from several sources. Alaska seems just as far away as it is, but the aura of Haines’s passing seeps into my days and saturates them. He died in the Fairbanks hospital where my children were born, where I have gone for biopsy and stitches, in the big building under the flashing blue light we can see from our dining room window. Never trust hospitals—people die in them. From all reports Haines didn’t trust the hospital and didn’t want to be there, until he no longer had a choice. One email said that he had wanted his ashes to be spread at his homestead, and if his friends wait until summer to do so, maybe I can be there, though I could not claim the right of real friendship. When I met Haines there were not only the years between us, but also the complications of my job at the university and his sense of having been slighted by that university, making it unlikely that we would become close. As I continued to teach his work and write about him, he eventually came to trust me, and made guest appearances in my classes, even as late as two years ago. But I can’t claim to be a friend, just one of the many admirers.
But now I can’t help thinking about him every time I look at a painting, which in Paris is a lot of the time. Most of what I choose to see is twentieth-century art, the work that was new when Haines was mustered out of the Navy after the war, studied art in the East, and came to Alaska to paint. The stuff we are submersing ourselves in, sometimes to near-suffocation, is by artists portraying a world that was falling apart. They fought evil and entropy by making art that held things together, the last art that mattered, or believed that it mattered, or proclaimed without irony that it mattered. Paris was the capital of an empire that stood for many of the wrong things, but it was also the unofficial capital of an empire without borders that stood for all the right things. Haines served in that other theater of war, was never one of the local expatriates. But for all its contrasts to Alaska, Paris has become a place in which I am reminded of Haines everywhere.
My favorite part of looking at all this art is watching my mother, who is a painter, tells stories of the paintings to my daughter. She drinks it up, wanting to make this experience as deep and wide and real as she can, everything in her posture and pace wanting to know what it all means, and at this point in her life still trusting us to tell her what it means, most of the time. Our multi-generational trip is working out just fine, with a little patience on everyone’s part. For instance, it turns out that we shower on different schedules: my wife and I in the mornings, my daughter whenever we make her, and my mother at night. She doesn’t do this merely for our convenience—she has been taking showers later in the day for as long as she has been a painter. To me the hour of cleansing (which is always more or less ceremonial among humans) is an indication primarily of one thing: whether you get dirty on the job. Those folks who work with their hands, who take on smells and grime in the course of a busy day, clean themselves up at night. Professors and other dilettantes can make themselves smell nice in the morning. Painting, it turns out, is a blue-collar job.
Though Haines found his vocation as a writer, which would seem to be among the most sedentary of white-collar jobs, he actually came to writing as a mode of subsistence, a natural extension of trapping and hunting and fishing and maintaining his homestead. When he made the transition from painting to poetry, it was at least partly because the latter fit better into his life in Alaska in the mid-twentieth century. He could work out the rhythms of a poem on the trail, testing lines, weighing words, while also carrying out the endless, meticulous labors of bush Alaska life. I imagine it is harder to try out painting ideas in the abstract, before mixing those sticky fluids and putting the stiff bristles to canvas. I can’t help but wonder what kind of painter Haines would have been. But I know what kind of a writer he was. The poems he published in the sixties and seventies, shaped on hand-cut trap-lines and in the firelit bachelor cabins around Richardson, as well as his lyric memoir of those years, will always be there for the aspiring western writer to face up to, or face down. They pass one of the most reliable tests for good art: they stand in the way of those who come later.
As fitting as I may contrive it to be that we are in Paris while I read of Haines’s death, there are also plenty of inconvenient ironies. Such as the fact that it’s Fashion Week in Paris right now. As if there were not already enough beautiful, well-dressed people crowding us in the streets and on the Metro, we also have to put up with a quintet of skinny women looming over us at dinner, waiting for our table. We caught a glimpse of Anna Wintour, long-time doyenne of Vogue, getting a private tour of Versaille. A TOUT LES GLORIES DE LA FRANCE. Spotting Wintour on the other side of a velvet rope gave us our own little moment in the crowd, a reward for having joined the masses in migration to this monumental fossil of one of civilization’s evolutionary dead ends.
The big local news this week is the firing of Dior head designer John Galliano for his anti-Semitic rants, one of which took place at a restaurant just a few blocks from our apartment in the Marais. France seems to be going through a renaissance of anti-Semitism (or perhaps it’s xenophobia that just happens to include Europe’s oldest and most reliable prejudice). Thus does politics rear its lumpenprole head even in the glitzy whirl of the fashion world, which most of the time does everything it can to pretend there is nothing else out there that really matters. Even in this sad footnote to history I am reminded of Haines, of the turn to politics in his later writing, of the political awareness that in fact had always informed his writing. He wrote poems dealing with Watergate and Vietnam, and more recently the deadly adventures of Bush the Younger, although they are not the poems most often cited and reprinted, perhaps because we fear the way contemporary allusions in poetry fade over time. But Haines found words to get at what’s eternal in the ways we frighten and kill each other. He wrote about how history is told in music and art, and how politics is always implied in everything we do that matters. There is no way to sequester it in its own sphere, no way to keep it apart, even from “nature.” Haines’ work illustrates the myriad ways that humans are always political animals, with full emphasis on both halves of that term.
For the benefit of friends and family I will write a different version of our week in France, complete with pictures. It’s not like I was haunted every moment of our visit by the far-off death of a gruff old poet. But still, there was no way around it. This is how I begin to work my way through a death that resonates in the chill, gilt sun of Paris. Rest in peace, John.