Monday, August 31, 2020

Review of BEAT SCRAPBOOK by Gerald Nicosia: So good it gave me the chills


Cover of Beat Scrapbook, Coolgrove Press, (c) 2020

I recently received a review copy of Gerald Nicosia's new and soon-to-be-published work, Beat Scrapbook. In short, I knew it would be good, but indeed it surpassed my expectations.

Readers of The Daily Beat need little introduction to Nicosia, but suffice to say that he is the renowned author of one of the first and best biographies of Jack Kerouac, Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac, as well as the author of several other books (including two about Jan Kerouac, one focused around Lu Anne Henderson -- Marylou from On The Road -- one about the last 25 years in Kerouac history, and one on the history of the Vietnam veterans' movement). This is not to mention at least 6 books of poetry, counting this one. 

Nicosia moved to San Francisco in 1979 and became part of a circle of Beat poets including Jack Micheline, Harold Norse, Gregory Corso, David Meltzer, Jerry Kamstra, Howard Hart, Joanna McClure, Lenore Kandel, and Janine Pommy Vega, many of whom appear in this new book.

Nearly each of the 42 poems in this book is focused on bringing to life -- through masterful poetic descriptions -- people Nicosia knew and loved over the past years. Almost all of these portraits are people with whom Nicosia had an in-person relationship, and they are heavily focused on Beat and post-Beat figures that are familiar names to anyone into Kerouac or the Beat Generation. A few are more personal to Nicosia; for example, a couple are about his family (DADDIO PETE is a haunting tribute to his father, whose death reminded me of Leo Kerouac's), one is about growing up in Illinois (MIDWEST RHAPSODY) and one of my favorites is about an old flame, THIS IS YOUR LIFE: to Charmaine (it evokes shades of Kerouac's Tristessa).  

Tributes to lesser-known poets include ones to Paul Carroll (THE BEAT FATHER OF CHICAGO POETRY), to Jack Mueller (POEM FOR JACK MUELLER (1842-2017)), and to Jack Micheline (FOR JACK). One of my favorites is a poem built around the items on a grocery receipt Ted Joans used to write down some info for Nicosia on because it's the only paper he had in his pockets (A POET'S GROCERY LIST: for Ted Joans (1928-2003)).  

There are the expected entries about Kerouac, Corso, Burroughs, Ferlinghetti, and Gary Snyder (for whom Nicosia expresses sincere anticipatory grief for his inevitable passing -- "Your endangered self which/As you say/Will soon be no more" (p. 23 ). Death is a strong theme in this set of poems. I particularly liked FOR JOHN--NOW THAT HE IS NO MORE: in memoriam John Montgomery (1919-1992). This poem helped me better know John Montgomery, with whom I fell in love from his portrayal in The Dharma Bums (as Henry Morley), my favorite Kerouac work.

Not all the subjects could be seen as Beat figures (there's one on Bukowski), but they have their Beat characteristics. To wit, one poem is about a Pennsylvania death row inmate (DEATH ROW PENNSYLVANIA: for Robert Lark and "the childred"), and another is to veterans' rights activist Bobby Waddell (BEAT THE HEAT: for Bobby Waddell).

The piece that gave me chills* was THE GHOST OF KEROUAC, whose opening lines did it to me again as I was re-typing them here (from p. 23):

Every time I walk the streets of Lowell
And the leaves are drifting through the early dark of October
And the poor teenage school kids are hurrying home
Past the eternal drugstores and cheap food places
On ancient cobbled Merrimack Street
And the damp air of fall gets in my bones
And the smell of car exhausts rises and 
Disappears in the low grey murk
Of Massachusetts heaven
I think of you Jack
Maybe it's because I've walked those very same streets and thought of Jack, but I got chills nonetheless. Unlike some Beat tribute writers, Nicosia does not fall into the trap of only writing about male figures as he includes poems to or for Jan Kerouac, Lenore Kandel, Ntozake Shange, and of course, Charmaine mentioned earlier. One poem is dedicated to Janine Pommy Vega (THE BEAUTIES OF MY GENERATION).

One thing I appreciate about Nicosia's poetry is that it is accessible and straightforward while at the same time being -- well, poetical. He rarely drops obscure literary references, and he can be forgiven for going "inside baseball" and dropping the phrase "Stan and Lil out in Northport" with no further explanation in IN MEMORIAM JAN KEROUAC. We insiders know he is talking about painter/Kerouac friend Stanley Twardowicz and his wife, Lillian. 

I really enjoyed the two poems Nicosia wrote at the Mill Valley Book Depot. Perhaps that is because I can vividly picture him sitting there taking in the "scenery" and writing down random thoughts and observations that became these poems. Crystal and I met him for lunch there a few years back on our way from L.A. to Oregon and it was a great place for a poet/writer to hang out.

Because much of this work is from personal experience, we learn things about these people that can only be gleaned from Nicosia himself. Like the time Ferlinghetti took him to get a better microphone than the one he showed up with to interview the famous Beat book publisher and co-founder of City Lights in San Francisco.

Beat Scrapbook is a gem. Nicosia shows great insights into human character and an outstanding ability to put such insights to verse. He captures the true heart of the people he describes, and you get the sense that you're privy to something real about these intriguing and unconventional characters.

Highly recommended.

NOTE: The release date for Beat Scrapbook is November 15 by Small Press Distribution. If you want a signed copy in advance, contact the author at

*There's a name for that spine-tingling feeling you get up and down your spine: Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Toop shelf review Rick, thanks. Can't wait. RM