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Bodhisattva of Browser Books

Latif William Harris (1940-2017)

Latif William Harris (1940-2017)


Latif William Harris — post-Beat poet, seeker and Bodhisattva of Browser Books — passed away on October 15 in Watsonville, California. He was 76 years old.

Born in Washington, D.C. (feet first, as he liked to say, treading his own path from the beginning) on New Year’s Eve of 1940, Harris relocated with his family to Los Angeles in 1945, where he was raised and where he fell in love with poetry. After serving in the navy he moved to San Francisco, living above Stella Pastry in North Beach in 1960, the neighbor and compatriot of poet John Wieners and artist Robert LaVigne. Though he went on to study in Los Angeles, New Mexico and London, to travel continental Europe and Java, Indonesia, Harris always returned to the Bay Area — first to Mill Valley and then to San Francisco, living for many years in the Lower Haight in a two-flat he renovated himself.

The author of hundreds of poems over a lifetime, Harris’s most significant achievements came toward the end of a long artistic career. In 2006, A Bodhisattva’s Busted Truth was published by Browser Books Publishing; and in 2009 Harris edited the monumental Beatitude Golden Anniversary 1959-2009, a massive and diverse anthology of that magazine, which included a reprint of the original 1960 City Lights collection. But perhaps his greatest work — the effort of many years and phases of life — would prove to be the last published within his lifetime: Barter Within the Bark of Trees, published in 2015, with an introduction by San Francisco Poet Laureate emeritus Jack Hirschman.

He is survived by his wife and partner of 36 years, Alpha Gardner, and his son Raphael. He was preceded in death by his first two sons, David and Simon. Harris and Gardner met at the original location of Browser Books, where he was working and also living at the time. His muse, and in many ways his salvation, she inspired countless lines of verse over the years, including a passage from Barter in which he anticipated his passing:

oh dear
I will have to leave you
follow me into the lands
of another billion days
it’s all for you
I have done this

But Harris was everybody’s Bodhisattva, not just Gardner’s; with characteristic generosity and his usual heightened awareness, he composed a message to friends and family to be released upon his passing:

What a wonderful life I’ve had. From the wastelands of L.A. to the shining City of St. Francis. Seeing the goony birds in South Pacific, the black-chinned hummers in Alaska, the birds of the Southern Himalayas in Bhutan, birds of Baja, High Sierras, Ding Darling and Corkscrew Swamp, Platt River Valley, roadrunners of New Mexico and California, and now wild turkeys in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I have flown off with them.

These words, naturally, read like a poem, and might in fact be considered his last. His emails, including this final one, always included the same post-script: “We breathe the exhales of all Sentient Beings, which connects us intimately.”

We on Fillmore Street will be breathing in Latif Harris’s spirit for many, many years to come.