There are several Joe Brainards you may or may not know. There’s Brainard the internationally-showing collage artist and painter, and there’s also the Joe Brainard who was a downtown NY scene fixture in the poetry world in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The Joe Brainard you probably know, though, is the author of the “cult classic” I Remember, first published in full form in 1975. Written with wit, candor and no pretension to self-importance, the book is a procedural memoir, every single brief entry in the book starting with the title phrase. Rather than offering the drama or grandiosity of an amazing life, Brainard instead provides you with a non-chronological wealth of sly specificity:
I remember after people are gone thinking of things I should have said but didn’t.
I remember how much rock and roll music can hurt: It can be so free and sexy when you are not.
I remember Royla Cochran. She lived in an attic and made long skinny people out of wax. She was married to a poet with only one arm until he died. He died, she said, from a pain in the arm that wasn’t there.
What Brainard’s lifelong friend poet Ron Padgett and the Library of America are doing in the publication of Brainard’s complete writing (including key comics and drawings) is both putting back into print many small books and journals published in limited runs while Brainard was active as a writer and more importantly offering a broad view of the literary endeavors of the artist and scene fixture known mostly for one audacious memoir. And the collected Brainard is successful at that, offering you all of I Remember first and then moving from Brainard’s earliest forays into prose in his late teens through to the point when, in the late ‘70s, Brainard without much explanation simply stopped both writing for publication and making art.
With the consolidated I Remember moved to the volume’s front, what you have for the rest of the book is, in the most straightforward terms possible, the thoughts of a smart, insecure young gay artist and writer as he slowly grows older into a smart, sharp-tongued and neurotic gay artist and writer. Even though much of the writing that follows I Remember verges on confessional, Brainard’s spare prose never veers into that kind of melodrama and his constant on-the-page self-chastisement about not being more open and honest (while he’s utterly frank about anything and everything) and blunt admittance of his faults works against the aggregate of his writing seeming self-centered or self-indulgent. Rather than being just a simplistic peek into someone’s personal life, the book is a detailed and compelling record of Brainard’s relationship to the world around him sometimes on a moment to moment basis and in as uncensored a way as he admits he can manage, a collection of moments worth reading and re-reading.
When Brainard lusts after a man named Gordon in 1971 in his Bolinas Journal, for example, you get enough detail on the page to be able to read hope, despair and desperation into his not-very-successful quest to win Gordon over all in the space of a single page. (And you also get Brainard writing about asking Gordon whether it’s okay that he’ll appear in a book in unvarnished form as an object of desire.) It’s almost as if Brainard arranges his admissions and declarations in such a way that you can watch his feelings about Gordon (and in other places about larger-scale things like life and truth) shift in real time as you read.
Brainard doesn’t display or promote his insecurity and frustration as a kind of achievement, though, he simply records it the way he records the shifting landscape on a long bus ride from New York to Vermont, detail after detail adding up into a portrait of both what’s being written about and who’s doing the writing. You could say this is true of any diaristic writing but the difference with Brainard is that his journals are nakedly self-aware that they’re providing readers with both kinds of portrait and because his doubts about the writing’s importance are duly noted in the text itself. For example, there’s this kind of thing, which pops up frequently:
I don’t wonder why I’m telling you all of this. I wonder if you’re wondering why I’m telling you all of this. (?)
I’m just not convinced that my problems are going to be all that interesting to a stranger. (And I do write for publication.)
And as much as Brainard shares mundane things like what he has for breakfast or what the weather is like there are sides of Brainard made prominent by omission, primarily his career as an artist and his longtime and complicated companionship with the much older and important-for-Brainard wealthy poet and librettist Kenward Elmslie, who appears in the book sunning himself or making scrambled eggs but is never really given as central a role on the page as he played in Brainard’s life. Which is to say that like all diaristic literary writing, it has been heavily edited before it was even written down, even given promises to the contrary. But knowing Brainard’s biography and how it does or doesn’t align with his decades of succinct personal records doesn’t affect appreciating the work as the finely-honed and elegantly written literary non-fiction that it is.
There’s also another Joe Brainard woven into the chronology, a writer using the simple, direct language of his published diaries for short plays and blocks of prose that act as poems or essays (or both) depending on how you approach them. It’s in these short works where Brainard’s writing takes on a sometimes Steinian and often comedic cast, as with this, from his early wise-ass piece Van Gogh:
Who is Van Gogh?
Van Gogh is a famous painter whose paintings are full of inner turmoil and bright colors.
Perhaps Van Gogh’s most famous painting is Starry Night, a landscape painting full of inner turmoil and bright colors.
There are many different sides to Van Gogh, the man.
When Van Gogh fell in love with a girl who didn’t return his love he cut off his ear and gave it to her as a present. It isn’t hard to imagine her reaction.
Van Gogh’s portrait of a mailman with a red beard is probably one of the most sensitive portraits of a mailman ever painted.
The writing in the collected gradually shifts from accounts of his own existence more to comics or to the kind of work like Van Gogh, and Brainard takes on subjects ranging from Queer Bars to Grandmother in incredibly precise small texts and self-named “mini-essays” that explore the world as much as they record Brainard’s relationship to it. This isn’t necessarily evidence of any kind of aesthetic shift, though, because Brainard’s centrality in his own writing comes and goes throughout the book, but what the miniature essays do is frame Brainard’s journal writing as more of an aesthetic and formal enterprise than it may initially seem. Reading through the book you get the impression that his directness and brevity were a choice, not a natural way of just jotting things down, and that Brainard was doing his own spin on friend and mentor Frank O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that” brand of poetic report while remaining firmly footed in prose.
But Brainard does accomplish a lot across the 500 pages of the collected, not just notation of a life or mini essays but in sum the outline of Brainard’s own aestheticized vision of himself and the world around him. Which may not sound like much of an achievement, but in Brainard’s hands it’s not note-taking, it’s artful and compelling either piece by piece or as one epic work of remembering. Brainard’s collected writings put forth that the small daily acts and fleeting ideas that make up a life are worth not just remembering but exploring and learning from, and Brainard does that exploration with enough style, elegance and wit that you want to follow along with his every word.
Nicholas Grider spends his spare time watching YouTube clips of Scout Niblett.