BOOKS | ERIN C. MESSER
In 1981, the poet Latif Harris was working at — and living above — Browser Books in its former location a block up from the current store on Fillmore Street. Harris was behind the front counter when, he says, “the most beautiful woman in the world” walked into the store.
They did what you do in a bookstore: talked about books, with Harris recommending something he was reading at the time. After she left, he hesitated briefly before chasing her down the street. He asked her to dinner and, to his surprise, she accepted. The most beautiful woman in the world is Alpha Gardner, and she and Harris have been together now for 34 years.
Sitting in the living room of their flat in the Lower Haight as they recount these events, I am struck by the profound resonance both for Harris and for me. My husband and I have come to visit them on an unseasonably warm Saturday in late March — the husband who worked with Harris when he returned briefly to Browser Books in the late 1990s, the husband I met when I was hired to work at Browser and he opened the store early to train me.
To call Harris and Gardner’s home “bohemian” is almost an understatement; it is something between a museum and a temple. Paintings by the late Robert LaVigne, Beat artist and Harris’ lifelong friend, cover the wall bordering the kitchen. Among them is the vibrant mandala painting that graces the cover of Beatitude Golden Anniversary 1959-2009, the 50-year, 500-plus-page anthology of Beat and San Francisco Renaissance literature that Harris co-edited with the poet Neeli Cherkovski.
Harris’ own artworks, Joseph Cornell-like boxes housing collaged miniature worlds, are displayed on a shelf, with volumes of Beat poetry both prominent and obscure lining the shelves underneath. The two front rooms of the flat are taken by a Buddhist altar and an atelier where Gardner assembles art quilts. She is also a photographer, as her photo, “Heart in the Redwood,” on the new book’s cover, attests.
Harris first arrived in San Francisco from the suburbs of Los Angeles in 1958, when the Navy posted him to Treasure Island. By 1960, he was living at 444 Columbus Avenue, above Stella Pastry. That was the year he met LaVigne, who introduced him to John Weiners’ The Hotel Wentley Poems, still one of his greatest influences. A slim and relatively clean-cut Harris was dropped smack into the middle of a North Beach that those of us born too late in the dying millennium can only dream of: a Beat eden.
But he didn’t stay there. Harris’ wild ride would take him back to L.A. to found the literary journal Ante, to Berkeley to drive Jack Spicer to the last reading Spicer ever gave, to New Mexico with Robert Creeley where his first book was published, to the University of Essex where he did graduate work in Sociology of Literature among the Marxists. But between trips to continental Europe, Java, Indonesia and, more recently, Bhutan, Harris always returned to the Bay Area, the site of his first real literary awakening.
In 2006, Browser Books Publishing, under the editorial guidance of store owner and publisher Stephen Damon, put out Harris’ collection, A Bodhisattva’s Busted Truth. As the title suggests, it focuses heavily on his practice of Tibetan (Vajrayana) Buddhism, including his own interpretation of the Tibetan dohas, or received sacred texts.
Harris’ new book brings his career full circle in both content and delivery. It is published by Duende Press in Placitas, which put out his first book 50 years ago. Barter Within the Bark of Trees: First Will & Testament, Poems of Aging and Memory is an elegy to a literary life fully lived by a poet who refuses to go gently into the fertile ground he has dug for himself. Its scope befits a poet who considers his work to be one long continuum, rather than a series of discrete collections. As Jack Hirschman puts it in his forward to the book: “ ‘Titanloose’ is what I call Latif Harris’ poetry. A play on a titan among us and at the same time a writing that’s ‘tight’ and ‘loose.’ ”
That Harris continues to contribute his idiosyncratic, compassionate voice to the din of literary San Francisco — and that we on Fillmore Street still hear him — is its own kind of living poetry.
Barter Within the Bark of Trees is available at Browser Books at 2195 Fillmore Street. A book release party and reading will be held at the Emerald Tablet, 80 Fresno Street in North Beach, on Sunday, May 24 at 2 p.m.
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