- Keeping in Touch
Hettie JonesDuke University Press
384Pages; Print, $29.95
Beatniks of the 1960’s represented a transgressive glamour that is unimaginable today. At twelve, my friends and I wandered around the Village, mesmerized by the cool girls wearing black tights, long hair and clunky Fred Braun shoes. One of those slum goddesses could have been Hettie Jones, except she may have been pushing a stroller.
Author of more then twenty books, Hettie Jones is a beloved New York City poet. When Love, H opens, she is a young mother married to an ambitious black poet, Leroi Jones, later known as Amiri Baraka. They lived on the Bowery, (where Hettie still resides) in the heart of downtown bohemia. Together, they edited the coolly influential literary magazine Yugen, and published books. In 1960, Hettie met Helene Dorn, and a foundational friendship was born.
A bit older, Helene Dorn, an artist left her first marriage to marry the poet Edward Dorn, and they pursued an unconventional creative life, three kids in tow. When Helene and Ed moved to England, a passionate correspondence that spanned handwritten letters, postcards, faxes, and finally emails, began and was maintained until Helene’s death in 2004. Arranged chronologically, these are missives from the front lines of creativity, feminism, single motherhood, ageing, politics, and poetry. Interspersed with Jones’s compassionate and occasionally brilliantly barbed observations, the chapters are introduced with women’s poems selected by the author.
As a mother with an interracial family, Jones was on the forefront as an activist and New Yorker. She writes, “I keep asking myself what exactly kept us in touch through our long silences, and invariably, come back to the faith that in time we’d simply pick up where we let off.”
Both marriages ended, and Hettie, a single mother worked hard to support her family. She acquired a car and a dog and still found time to hang out with Beat luminaries and enjoy “quiet affairs.” She wrote, “But I also felt that hard work—freelance editing and proofreading was saving my life, so I’d never have to give it away because someone else needed it.” In 1966, she is prescient enough to write “I am bored by Timothy Leary’s guru-ness,” at a time when the counter cultural world was enamored of the LSD pioneer. That same year, she was “fired from a job for ‘black militant beliefs.’” When she discovered an absence of people of color in kids literature, she wrote her own book, which led to a string of children’s books, including the classic American Indian poetry selections, The Trees Stand Shining (1971) and the young adult Big Star Falling’ Mama: Five Women in Black Music (1995). Yet in 1991, Viking’s Portable Beat Reader published a story of Hettie’s, and listed her as a “secretary” while ignoring two decades of publication and teaching.
Still a reluctantly dutiful wife, Helene in 1965 reports from England, “I’ve about five pgs. to type for Ed plus a bunch of quotes to look up and copy…” and towards the end of a chatty, supportive missive, reiterates, “I’ve got to quit and work for Ed.” In 1966, missing New York, she writes, “I went on the moors and have a sprig of heather for you.” A later letter complains, “He’s got three books to finish by September and just as I found the time to do some painting, the bastard needs me…”
In 1969, Helene, at forty “a discarded wife,” returned to the States, settling in the small port town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, near her great friend, poet Charles Olson. Two years later, she had her first show of mosaics, “discards” of glass and metal found on the harbor beaches. A true autodidact, passionate reader and avid library patron, she extolled Sandra Cisneros, Lorca, Jean Rhys, Emily Dickinson and Alice Walker, and as Hettie’s personal librarian recommended endless eclectic books.
In 1989, Dorn records; ”I’m listening to Coltrane, the studio door shut to keep in...