Bearden Unbound

by Robert Dumont

“I wonder if Dave Bearden still dislikes me.” —Ted Berrigan, The Sonnets LXXVI

David Omer Bearden was born in 1940 in the brawling desert town of Blythe, California, where his parents had settled as part of the Depression-era Okie migration. In and out of trouble in his early years, at age 14 young Bearden was sent to Riverside County Juvenile Hall for stealing a car along with another boy and driving it 200 miles to Eloy, Arizona. He subsequently spent a year at the Elsinore Naval and Military Academy. While in detention in “ juvie,” where beatings administered by the guards were a rite of passage, and during his time at military school, he cultivated a love of reading and in his own words “discovered poetry.” After turning 16, he went to live with an older sister and her family in the town of Mangum in southwestern Oklahoma and completed high school there.

In the summer of 1958, Bearden enrolled at the University of Tulsa. He met a local girl named Judy Brownfield in an English class taught by Beaumont Bruestle, and they were soon a steady couple. Judy found David to be “intelligent, dashing, charismatic, funny, charming, and handsome … and very well read,” even if he did tend to “pontificate grandly on almost any subject” at places like the Elbow Room and other off-campus hangouts.

He also became friends with Ted Berrigan, an upperclassman majoring in English, who shared his interest in poetry and the writings of the “Beats,” and both began to publish their own poems in Nimrod, the campus literary magazine. Following a memorable encounter with Ron Padgett in the Lewis Meyer Bookstore, the two  of them contributed poems to The White Dove Review, the avant-garde literary magazine Padgett edited and produced along with his fellow Central High School students, Joe Brainard and Dick Gallup.

In 1962, David and Judy (now married) drove from Tulsa to New York City to join Berrigan, Padgett, Brainard, and Gallup, who were living there and sending back favorable reports. Shortly after the couple arrived, however, their car was broken into and all of the things they’d brought with them from Oklahoma were stolen, including a suitcase full of his manuscripts. Undeterred, they rented an apartment on East 7th Street on the Lower East Side, but David grew to dislike Manhattan intensely, describing it as a place full of “men dressed up in monkey suits, working in cages.” Nor did he find the collegial New York art and poetry scene with its round of cocktail parties and gallery openings suited to his outspoken personality and competitive nature. It was a scene that has been described by Daniel Kane, in his book All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s, as prizing “informality, chattiness, a sense of casual erudition …” while Bearden had always cultivated the self-image of the poet as a brooding and solitary outsider—Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Ezra Pound, even Bob Dylan in his alienated protest-singer mode, were closer to his ideals. In this, he differed in style and attitude from the gregarious Berrigan and the more low- key Padgett and Gallup. The three of them, along with Joe Brainard, who was making a name for himself in the art world, were moving rapidly away from their Oklahoma beatnik beginnings.

There was one occasion in which Bearden and the other Tulsans found themselves publishing their work together. It was in an ephemeral mimeo publication called The Censored Review, edited by Ron Padgett. It came about after the administrators at Columbia University objected to Ron’s intention to include poems by Ted and David in an issue of The Columbia Review, the university’s official literary magazine. Berrigan’s poem was deemed obscene for using the word “fuck,” and Bearden’s was considered to be unacceptably scatological for containing the words “shit” and “turd.”

Because of the ban, a furor erupted that was covered by the local press and Padgett was even interviewed on TV. The student editors of The Columbia Review resigned in protest and The Censored Review was printed by an off-campus social organization. Priced at 25 cents, it sold out all 800 copies immediately and was a prototype for the type of inexpensively produced chapbooks and fanzines that would flourish in the 1960s and ‘70s. All that was needed was a mimeograph machine and a stapler.

In a review appearing in the Columbia Spectator, Angus S. Fletcher, an assistant professor of English wrote, “The most accomplished poem here is the one that caused the most furor … Bearden’s ‘The Desk is a Frozen Sea.’ The verse is refined and ingenious, full of carefully controlled off-rhymes and assonantal effects. Its strict stanzaic form gives order to the whole. One simply accepts the idea of the poem, that the creative process, in this cosmic instance, is a painful, narcissistic exertion …”

Despite Fletcher’s laudatory review and the emergence of his four fellow Tulsans, Bearden was having trouble parking himself among the New York crowd, figuratively and otherwise. Ted Berrigan, in a letter to his wife, wrote of him as “Dave Bearden … wrapped up so intensely in his own unhappiness …” Ron Padgett would later recall it this way: “Dave knew he couldn’t fit in in New York and he probably didn’t want to anyway.” Meanwhile, over the course of several months, he accumulated dozens of parking tickets totaling hundreds of dollars in fines that he knew he’d never be able to afford to pay. Each time he received a new one he’d simply toss it in the back seat and forget about it. He had never relinquished the car he’d driven east because it represented for him and Judy the only possible means of eventual escape from the hateful city. Thirteen months after their arrival, they decided to quit New York, with the skyline of Manhattan receding in their rear view mirror and the unpaid parking tickets streaming out the windows.

Oklahoma was pulling them back even as California was calling. After dropping his wife off in Tulsa, David drove on to San Francisco to meet up with Richard White, a friend and fellow poet from the TU days.

After Judy joined him a few months later, they lived first on Baker Street in a quiet working-class Russian neighborhood that was evolving into what would later become the famed Haight-Ashbury district. They then moved further east into a house on Fell Street and were nearby to Edgar Owen, another friend from Tulsa, who resided on Oak Street in a large Victorian-style mansion that had been converted into a rooming house. Bearden soon became associated with Charles Plymell, the Kansas Beat poet and publisher, and his posse of Midwestern ex-pat writers and artists known as the “Wichita Vortex.” Plymell, who had his own offset printing press, produced a number of noteworthy avant- garde publications, including three issues of a magazine called Bulletin from Nothing. In its first issue, a poem titled “In a Cantina” by David Omer Bearden appeared along with works by such Beat luminaries as William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Antonin Artaud, Ed Sanders, and Bob Kaufman. Through Plymell, Bearden got to know Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady and also became acquainted with Ken Kesey, although Bearden’s strident personality assured that he was never going to be a member of Kesey’s band of “Merry Pranksters.” The poet Maureen Owen recalls, “David was not your jolly, get-on-the-bus type.”

During the 1970s, Bearden’s poems appeared in a number of West Coast, small-press magazines. He edited and published anthologies and chapbooks containing his own works as well as those by several former Tulsans, members of the Vortex, and Gerard Malanga, whom he hadmetinNewYork.Hestruggledwithdrugs and alcohol and began an affair with the tragic, Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Judee Sill, who died from an overdose in 1979. The affair eventually led to the breakup of his marriage— something for which he would express great regret in later years. Earlier in the decade however, Sill had set one of his poems to music. “When the Bridegroom Comes” appears as a track on her second album, Heart Food, which was dedicated to him. Her simple arrangement of voice and piano combined with his words, steeped in Christian mystical imagery, resulted in an extraordinary piece of recorded music that can be compared to the best of Bob Dylan during his gospel period.

Over the years, Bearden continued to write and traveled in widening circles beyond California. He lived in Oregon and Washington and made frequent trips to Mexico. He worked at various jobs such as a carpenter, lumberjack, combine operator, and as a ranch hand on a Morgan horse ranch.

In 1985 he crossed the country to stay with Edgar Owen, now living in rural New Jersey. He declared that he was giving up drinking and drugs, and even poetry because it was “too difficult.” The recent years had been a hard road for Bearden. Because some of the paths he blazed had led him to dark places, he was attempting to mellow out as best he could. He got together with a woman named Johanna Beck, whom he would later describe as his muse, and lived with her for lengthy periods in New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. He began writing poetry again while holding a variety of jobs, including a stint as a guide and narrator on the seasonal tourist motor coaches that traveled the scenic back roads and byways of the Keystone State. His gift of gab served him well as the historical narratives and humorous yarns he recounted, or in many cases invented, were always a hit with the leaf peepers and tour bus passengers.

Bearden lived the last 15 years of his life in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He worked at the Lackawanna Public Library and then as the overnight manager of the Catholic Charities Homeless Shelter. Among his duties were to administer Breathalyzer tests to incoming residents (though he himself had resumed drinking heavily) and to prepare an evening meal for them. His poem “The Homeless Stars” describes a typical evening at the shelter. He also spent much of his time schmoozing in a local neighborhood bar called Pat Langan’s. In his final piece of writing—a dense, Joycean word-romp called “The Thing in Packy Innard’s Place”—he would depict the scene in the bar in surreal and poetic language along with Scranton and its people, architecture, and natural setting.

Though he had long since left Tulsa behind, he included one last oblique reference to it in “The Thing in Packy Innard’s Place.” In describing Scranton, by way of contrast to any place else in the known universe, Bearden wrote, “Then the north-eastern hollows yawned ad hoc … strange and pristine as asymmetrical mazzard saplings in some cherry valley, remote crossroads more exotic [even] than Tuzla Oklahoma …”

While working in the homeless shelter, he received an accidental puncture wound from a used syringe belonging to a resident and contracted Hepatitis C as a result. As his health later declined he opted not to consider drastic medical intervention. He told his brother James Bearden that, because he was pushing 70, he wasn’t up for the “whole medical grind.” He said he’d had his run and added, “I was pretty fast there for a while too”; like in the old blues song “Goin’ Down Slow,” he declared—“I have had my fun, if I don’t get well no more I’m going down slow.”

David Omer Bearden died peacefully on September 4, 2008. His obituary—appearing in the Altus [Oklahoma] Times, among other places—noted he had been called the “Apocalypse Rose, a poet, writer, artist, musician, iconoclast, outlaw, traveler, and extraterrestrial,” and described him as “possessing intelligent wit and biting insight … known to raise a glass, laugh out loud, have dignified manners and be a profane irreverent [sic].”

Richard White, his friend for nearly 50 years, wrote the following:

“David was brilliantly angry, caught somewhere between civilization and barbarism. He was a scholar and a lunatic, and maintaining a relationship with him often involved exercising enough grace to avoid afistfight.Sometimes,therewasnothing either the most gracious or most cowardly of us could do. He would challenge even his closet friends, among which I was counted, on both trivial and metaphysical issues, issues ranging from the color of a dead poet’s eyes to whether Pound’s use of Chinese ideograms was truly effective. Despite the physical risks, though, all David’s friends cherished their friendship with him.

“He was committed to the job (and he did consider it a job) of being a free poet; he did, what many of us did but most could not: he put his life where his heart and mind were. It was not possible to disrespect him; it was just sometimes difficult to avoid being attacked by him. But liking David was also a job, not a social pleasure. To be David’s friend required hard work. He demanded the toil.”