July 13, 2002, “Introduction” to “A Month with Philip Whalen”

In Memoriam, Philip Whalen,

By Randy Roark

Between 1980 and 1985, I studied with Philip Whalen during his more-or-less yearly appearances at Naropa Institute. During the last three years it was more of a general assistant than a student.

Later, Philip had triple-bypass heart surgery and, complicating his life even more, he was also not only legally blind (due to a screw-up on his cataract medicine at the hospital) but Sensei of the Hartford Street Zen Center and AIDS hospice. When I heard about his situation, I got this wild idea to write him a letter and offer my services as an assistant during his convalescence. To my amazement, I received a call the next week from his assistant who wanted to take some time off. After some discussion on the phone, we decided I would come out for a month and take care of Philip in the afternoons. What I wanted was to be able to stay at the San Francisco Zen Center and receive instruction while I was there. There was also some money in it for me.

And so in 1993, I flew to San Francisco to “take care of” Philip Whalen. My duties were minimal. The main thing was to get Philip up and moving—his doctor insisted this was the best thing following his surgery. So we usually walked to the bank with a stop on the way back for groceries, and sometimes we’d also stop at the dry cleaners or the post office. Once we stopped at an art gallery. Philip had asked them to frame (very expensively) a Tibetan painting in gold. But he couldn’t see, so he needed me to tell him if his precise instructions on how it should be framed had been followed. And then we went home and put it in a spare room that was piled high with paintings and boxes and papers and books.

Once we were looking for an important check that he’d misplaced, and I discovered an immense pile of letters and packages on his desk. Many of the names were familiar to me from my days at Naropa: Diane di Prima, Gary Snyder, Nanao Sakaki, Clark Coolidge, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, Leslie Scalapino, and Anne Waldman. All of them hadn’t been opened, and several were mailed months before. “You ever open these?” “Not unless I have to.” One day I asked him what he could see (he could sign a check, for instance, if I put my finger on where the line began) and at this point he could see only shapes and colors, no details whatsoever.

But the situation at Philip’s was so intense, and my stay at the San Francisco Zen Center so uncomfortable that I left the Zen Center after two days (without telling Philip) and rented a room on the edge of the Tenderloin and walked back and forth to Philip’s Castro District zendo every day (about a 90-minute walk, each way).

An introvert by nature, I immediately became even more reclusive than usual and rarely left my hotel room except to walk to Philip’s every day. One of my few extra-curricular visits was to Nancy Peters at City Lights, and it was my first time in City Lights Bookstore. When I went upstairs, Ferlinghetti was sitting at his desk with his back to the door, talking on the phone.

And at night I read my way through Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems. Harper and Row were putting together a selected and I was asked to help with the selection. In order to work with him every day, I had to forget about what a good poet he was. Plus I’d seen him read so many times that it was no longer special for me. But to read these poems consisting of intense (and almost neurotically precise) details sensitized some kind of inward seeing in me that made walking through S.F. almost impossible. A walk after dark through the Tenderloin was something of a modern Inferno—open flames, dark smoke, hungry strangers leaning out of dark alleys, garish neon and noise, poolcues splintering, distant gunshots, glaring women in short skirts on street corners—a subculture that took over the streets at night and retreated mostly to the city’s cracks and shadows at dawn.

And then to carry these same eyes into Philip’s room each day, and to deal with aging and illness and quiet failure and impending death. Or to read aloud to him from the “Diamond Sutra” or Ulysses or Lewis Carroll in the simple temple of his room. And then at night to return home and discover (somewhat for the first time) “Kaddish” or “The Fall of America,” until I fell asleep on the crummy hotel mattress that I couldn’t really afford. It was just too much of everything all at once.

So I ended up leaving a little early, abandoning Philip in a way. But when I visited him several years later, he seemed sincerely happy to see me … but with Philip I could never really tell.

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