On reading Mike Golden’s “Portrait of a Young Man Trying to Eat the Sun (the life, legend, and mysterious death of d.a. levy)”
When I was seventeen, I found The Outlaw Bible of American Essays at the local Barnes and Noble. The anthology’s cover had a shiny copper background and, printed over it, in small black letters, were the names of authors included in the volume—names like bell hooks, Michelle Tea, Annie Sprinkle, Ben Fong-Torres, Eileen Myles, and Eldridge Cleaver. It was a particularly crucial time in my development as a writer—after I started writing creative nonfiction but before I knew the genre actually existed (I called my pieces on the history of Bust Magazine; my favorite diner, The Star; and character sketches of people I knew “journalism,” although I was more interested in pontificating and description than cold, hard fact); and those small black names carried a certain mystique. I didn’t know any of them, but I wanted to. I wanted them to tell me strange, sad and humorous stories and to show me how I could replace my five paragraphs essays and who/what/when/where/whys with weirder, more interesting ways of writing nonfiction. I bought the book.
I loved Myles’ “Everyday Barf,” about sestinas, protesting Fox News and a galley of pukers on a ferry to Provincetown (it includes the killer line, “The boat was rocking and the people were puking and it was her gift to me”). I liked James Sullivan’s piece on 1950s teenagers in the popular imagination—which I mostly remember as an essay about blue jeans—and the portraits and accompanying text in Fly’s Peops series, which captured the characters of New York City’s bohemian Lower East Side (I grew up in a nearby suburb). I was titillated by Sprinkle’s description of a sex club in the 1970s, and inspired by hooks’ treatise “Love as the Practice of Freedom.” But my favorite essay in the anthology was Mike Golden’s “Portrait of a Young Man Trying to Eat the Sun,” a biographical piece on 1960s countercultural poet d.a. levy.
I was predisposed to like “Portrait of a Young Man Trying to Eat the Sun.” In elementary school, I devoured Young Adult biographies about people like Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Tubman, and Annie Oakley; I also read books on Buddhism, the belief system of my favorite teacher, an eccentric who kept a houseful of pets, walked with a limp because of a llama bite, and had, at some point, helped smuggle monks out of Chinese-occupied Tibet. By the time I was in high school, my interests had shifted to the poems of Rimbaud and the films of Jean-Luc Godard (I think I was searching for something in the cool, androgynous masculinity of Rimbaud’s smudged portrait and French New Wave cinema, trying to find my own queerness in those sad boy templates because they were what I knew). I was also a bright-eyed young anarchist, leading discussion groups on feminism and dancing to three-chord punk bands at the local center for peace and justice.
—a Jewish-American influenced by the Beats, Buddhism, and the incendiary politics of the era—wrote poems with lines like, “If you want a revolution // return to your childhood // and kick out the bottom.” And his biography felt downright Rimbaudian: discharged from the Navy for manic depression, he was put on trial for obscenity after reading his poetry in the presence of two high school students and, at twenty-six, purportedly shot himself in the head using a gun nestled between his knees.
He was also a small publisher. According to Golden, levy’s Seven Flowers Press and his periodicals, The Marrahwanna Quarterly and The Buddhist Third Class Junkmail Oracle, “published scores of poets, writers, and artists, [from 1963-1968] as well as many unknown from all over the underground press circuit, such as Charles Bukowski, R. Crumb, and Ed Sanders, to name but a few who went on to achieve acclaim.” My literary heroes at age seventeen were zinesters like Aaron Cometbus and Cindy Crabb, who self-published their writing via photocopied pamphlets and became punk legends for doing it well year in and year out. The romance of levy bent over mimeographed newspaper sheets and handbound books grabbed me—in my teenage daydreams, this was who I wanted to be.
It was levy’s publishing that got him in trouble. “From the start his mimeoed poetry and underground newspaper stuck in the craw of the sleepy city fathers,” Golden writes, “He used language that Cleveland had never seen in print before … went directly after the real estate interests, after the police and the narcs, and became the most visible figure in Cleveland’s burgeoning youth culture.” In December of 1966, the Asphodel Bookshop, where most of levy’s publications were housed, was raided to collect evidence against levy. A trial followed, and both The Plain Dealer and the Cleveland Press covered it, and levy, sympathetically (of his growing fame during the trial, and his discomfort with that fame, levy wrote, “i certainly don’t want to be reborn into a world where everyone is attempting to imitate a foul-mouthed saint”—a line that is as brilliant as it is narcissistic). levy was let off the hook for a time but, Golden writes, “on March 18, 1967, levy was arrested at his apartment and charged with five counts of contributing to the delinquency of minors—specifically for reading so-called obscene poetry at The Gate, in the presence of a seventeen-year-old boy levy has published … and a fifteen-year-old girl.” Even after those proceedings wrapped up—levy pled no contest, paid a $200 fine, and agreed to probation—his feisty-but-capricious spirit had, according to his contemporaries, been pretty much due-processed out of him. “Cleveland has a ‘Subversive Squad,’ going back to the McCarthy era … Today we can almost laugh about it, but back then it was like being under the thumb of the Nazis,” Franklin Osinski told Golden. “He was a scared, little worried guy, and we really had a deal where he wouldn’t have to go to jail,” levy’s lawyer, Gerald Gold added, “So we finally made a deal, which in retrospect I’m sorry we made. Because I think as long as he had this fight he probably would have stayed alive.”
These descriptions of how the obscenity trials impacted levy and his community of friends felt personal and visceral, a far cry from the Wikipedia articles on Students for a Democratic Society and 1960s feminism that had, up until that time, fed my burgeoning interest in radical history. As I read about a teenage girl sneaking a tape recorder into a reading to entrap levy, and levy writing, to a friend, "...the cia fbi are going to get me for something (burn this letter)," I felt for him, felt the mounting pressure on all sides, so tight all around that it felt like he couldn’t escape.
I lost my original copy of the book, then forgot about it until, at age twenty-three or so, I came across a copy at the public library where I was living in North Carolina. On my second read of The Outlaw Bible of American Essays, I was aware of things I hadn’t been before, like the Camp Trans protests outside of the Michigan Women’s Festival that Michelle Tea writes about in “Transmissions from Camp Trans.” I was also closer to some of the worlds described in the anthology: I’d briefly crossed paths with Annie Sprinkle—we were both working on ecological issues in Appalachia, bawled on the Subway while reading bell hooks’ Belonging: A Culture of Place, and had some New York City friends who were drawings and stories in Fly’s Peops series. As I re-read “Portrait of a Young Man Trying to Eat the Sun,” I was attentive to levy’s privileges as a white, male poet in the 1960s. levy seemed less tragic and more like the person that Steve Ferguson describes as “a pretty vain guy” in Golden’s text—self-absorbed and self-pitying. And I couldn’t help but notice that when Golden introduces Dagmar, levy’s controversial girlfriend (the girlfriends of worshipped dead men always seem to be controversial, don’t they?) he describes her as “Fresh out of Cleveland Heights High, with the look of a working class Madonna.” Innocent and beautiful, like all worthwhile girls who don’t happen to be geniuses—although who’s to say she wasn’t, or couldn’t have been.
But I was still, against my better judgement and anarcho-feminist values, drawn to the piece. That time around, I found myself reading it as an essay about Cleveland, a city I’d come to know. Reading “...Darryl Allen Levy first became known to other Cleveland poets as d.a. levy while he was living in a grungy garrett overlooking the Cuyahoga River and the Cleveland Flats;” I recalled driving through the Flats one icy midnight with a friend who grew up in the city. We wove through the narrow streets, crisscrossed by a tightly-packed network of train tracks and lined with steel mills while, a few blocks over, the LTV Cleveland Works’ smokestock shot its nightly flame into the pollution-purple sky. When levy associate Tony Walsh tells Golden, “When the Hough riots broke out levy was in the middle of it, trying to bring it altogether,” I thought about how, a year and a half after that drive through the Flats, I squeaked on a half-broken bike through Hough, riding with a friend to the sprawling urban farmhouse where they lived. My friend pointed out abandoned buildings—I remember one apartment complex in particular, a stone edifice with boarded-up windows—and told me they’d been that way since the riots, that the city hadn’t bother to fix them ever since the black, working-class neighborhood rose up against a racist police force and white business class in 1966. (Of course, like levy—though he might have felt like he was in the middle of it—I’m white, and the Hough Riots aren’t my struggle to claim. My bike ride through Hough gave me a deeper understanding of systemic racism—and resistance to that racism—in this country, but it’s a system that, as a white citizen, I implicitly benefit from.)
Cleveland is what killed levy, Golden suggests again and again throughout the essay: “Maybe if he had gotten out of Cleveland, he wouldn’t have been swallowed by the times … his reputation and work would have already transcended the boundaries of a regional underground cult figure.” Golden mentions that many of levy’s contemporaries left Cleveland in the years after levy’s death, frequently for the milder climes and often milder politics of California. levy, too, was trying—or said he was trying—to move away. “levy was supposedly getting out of Cleveland, coming to California, when his body was found,” Golden writes, based on conversations with the poet D.R. Wagner, who levy was in correspondence with. But the poet’s plans were always ephemeral and reluctant. levy wrote to Wagner: “i am not hung up on cleveland and haven’t been for a while—it is just that i am here and can get things done here.” Salomon added, “He was going to stick around Cleveland and make a point,” as though making a point was the only reason to stay in that harsh steel town at the southern edge of Lake Erie.
My world had grown bigger in the years since I first read "Portrait of a Young Man Trying to Eat the Sun." Cleveland was no longer an imaginary landscape but a place I knew, a charming Rust Belt city with a bustling central market and a cast of Rodin’s The Thinker that had been partially blown up by the Weatherman. Golden doesn’t seem to share my pleasant opinion of the town: he describes Cleveland as nothing more than a murderer—a soul-sucking, police state of a city. But he sees Cleveland, and that seeing held me enraptured until the last page.
I revisited the essay for a third time just recently (at age twenty-seven, if you’re keeping track), after I lent a friend my latest copy of The Outlaw Bible of American Essays and, upon returning it to me, she mentioned liking “Portrait of a Young Man Trying to Eat the Sun." It was, once again, good timing: I’d just finished up edits on a biographical project of my own, a zine about Geneviève Hamon, a little known scientist and filmmaker in 20th century France. I’d also returned to school and had spent two semesters in nonfiction workshops, picking apart well-known essays and trying to make my own sturdy enough that they wouldn’t fall over at the first sign of critique. As I opened to page 153 of the anthology and fell, once again, into Golden's prose, I found myself de-constructing the essay as I read it. It became less of a biography and more of a comment on biography as a genre, and on the desire to make sense of conflicting pieces of a person's life. I also found that, once again, the character I was most interested in had changed. It was no longer levy, or the clanking, industrial streets of Cleveland—the most interesting character was Golden himself.
Based on his biographical paragraph at the back of the anthology, I know Golden's “a poet, journalist, novelist, filmmaker and award-winning playwright and screenwriter” who “through his book, The Buddhist Third-Class Junk Mail Oracle: the art and poetry of d.a. levy, has done more than any other person to preserve the legacy of d.a. levy and garner for the Cleveland poet the admiration he assuredly deserves.” In his entry in the Poets & Writers’ Directory, his only listed book is the one about levy, although he’s been much anthologized. Smoke Signals, the online magazine Golden runs, describes itself as: "An alternative lit-magazine. Witty, sexy, and off-beat, Smoke Signals features underground pop culture from the 1970’s to the present while waxing philosophical on some of the more controversial topics from the news.” From the information I've quickly gathered, I can guess that Golden is older, counter-cultural, and into the Beats and the descendents of the Beats—anything else I know about him comes from “Portrait of a Young Man Trying to Eat the Sun” itself. And—because he talks so little about himself in that—what I can draw from it mostly is his obsession with levy and with puzzling together the circumstances of levy’s death.
Even if there are answers about how, and why, levy died, Golden believes they’re unlikely to be found. In the first paragraph, he writes: “There never has been enough to go around. The right questions aren’t asked. Meaningful answers never appear. Even words get lost.” And in the second: “levy’s story is a modern Rashomon, filled with the contradictions illuminating the dichotomies that appear on the path of the warrior artist.”
While Golden never returns to the kind of heavy-handed rumination that fills the essay’s first few pages, his opening words form a kind of prism through which, at least for me, the rest of the essay is read. The essay itself is constructed as an editorialized oral history, with snippets of interviews from levy’s contemporaries—Russell Salomon, R. Crumb, D.R. Wagner—arguing over everything from levy’s sense of humor (D.R. Wagner says he had one, R. Crumb says he didn’t) to his relationship with Dagmar (“I had gotten to the point where I was really not happy with our relationship,” Dagmar tells Golden, “and when he came back [from a residency in Madison] I wasn’t living at our place anymore.”). Golden’s selection and arrangement of interviews drives the narrative towards one question: What happened to d.a. levy in the end? Did he shoot himself with a pistol cradled between his knees or was he killed by a close friend or the government or did someone witness his suicide but, fearful of being implicated, refuse to own up to it? (“I think it’s … possible the suicide happened in rjs’s presence—that he locked up the room and came back two or three days later with a witness,” Ferguson tells Golden. rjs himself, while not admitting to being present, buys the suicide theory: “Why’d he do it? … He left Cleveland! That was the whole point, he left Cleveland … He left. He went to Israel. Get it?”)
I wonder why Golden went down this route, collecting everything he could about a mystery he didn’t think he could solve. Maybe Golden thought, at the beginning, that he could find answers, and by the time he realized they weren’t there he was already obsessed. Or maybe Golden went looking for himself in levy’s biography. There’s something alluring about stepping into another life and trying to reconstruct it—it’s a little like trying to polish a scuffed up funhouse mirror. Who could I have been, if I were not me but them? And then there’s the wonderment over the puzzle pieces themselves, the different conflicting shards the writer picks up and can’t quite fit together.
For my essay on Hamon, I wasn’t able to conduct extensive interviews or drive around her old stomping grounds (the Breton coast of France)—I was dependent on published writing and was mostly piecing my subject together through mentions of her in writing about other people. There are things I'll never uncover about Hamon—she’s little documented—and part of my essay is about being alright with that. Part of it, too, is about my obsession with this person, my drive to rescue her from obscurity despite the fact that she might not have wanted to be rescued (Hamon may well have been, as a correspondent told me over email, "a rather modest person who never made the headlines"). I'm fascinated by this unknowability and so, I'm willing to guess, is Golden—he has, after all, devoted much of his life to a conflictual dead poet who left behind a heap of mystery.
“Portrait of a Young Man Trying to Eat the Sun” is a sort of anti-biography—not the oversimplified, 192-page Annie Oakley: Young Markswoman I read when I was eleven, nor the bestsellers branded with the airbrushed smiles of politicians, but something messier and more honest. levy’s life has more speculation in it than verifiable fact; the stories told about him don’t quite fit together (which is true, maybe, of most lives). Golden doesn’t try to come up with answers where there aren’t any to be found, doesn’t strive for a neat summation, but dwells in the confusion. The confusion and the unknowing are the story.
Golden believes, as I believe, that there is something to be found in the mess. “Even words get lost,” he writes, “Lost words, wild words without a home wander endlessly for years, sometimes lifetimes, before they resurface to make an impression on a public of a different time.” As a keeper of levy’s legacy, it’s easy to assume that the “words” Golden’s referring to are levy’s poems. But maybe, too, he's referring to the words that he’s collected from others about levy’s life and death—maybe there’s something to be found not just in wild, confusing, electric poetry but also in wild, confusing, electric biography. What that is, exactly, is up to you and I to decide.