Lucia Berlin: The Art of Phantom Pain

Lucia Berlin (photo by Buddy Berlin)
Lucia Berlin (photo by Buddy Berlin)

I met Lucia Berlin in 1977, the year her first small book appeared, but it wasn’t till I published her collection Phantom Pain that we became great friends (Tombouctou Books, Bolinas, 1984).

Lucia was working at Alta Bates Hospital then, in Berkeley, at the switchboard and in the waiting rooms. Hospital work suited her. She was interested in extremities, in gossip, in contrary people with serious complaints, who also felt relieved to be alive. It was hard, low-paying work. She would have preferred to be writing, but she almost never said so. She did produce several new hospital stories (“Emergency Room Notebook”, “My Jockey,” “Private Branch Exchange,” “Temps Perdu,”) during this time. I imagine her composing them at night and on the weekends, and then stealing time at work to edit. We often spoke of stealing time, as though it were a necessary concomitant of creation. All but one of these pieces went into the new book of 15 stories and a play.

The title, Phantom Pain, refers to the haunting ache an amputee feels for a missing limb. The phrase neatly sums up Lucia’s work for me. Many of her best stories transform life’s fleetingness and loss into deeply felt—yet comedic—memories, more real than life, without coloration or emotional distortion. The haunting ache they deliver to the reader is tempered by tenderness and bemusement. Her style may appear to be offhand, an accretion of detail. It is anything but.

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The couple of years when we worked on the book were punctuated by hilarious meetings, phone calls, visits between my house in Bolinas and hers in Oakland and Berkeley (they changed often), and spirited letters, mostly hers, delivering a few more stories with each post.

Our friendship continued—we had many more chapters. One encompassed the year my aging mother spent living with me in rural Bolinas, in need of care. This was also the year in which I married. As the day approached, Lucia offered a multi-part wedding gift which included 1) staying and caring for my mother on the wedding night, 2) a revelatory Tarot card reading for my bride, and 3) an extraordinary dinner on our return, for which I still have the recipe: a French cassoulet with boneless leg of lamb and turkey kielbasa. If you’ve ever tried this dish yourself, you know it’s a labor of love.

Lucia and I had a few running arguments—call them discussion points. One concerned fiction, and whether one should make it up or re-mold it out of personal experience.   We both knew where we stood on this: we stood with personal experience, but as time went on I began to argue the other side, for safety’s sake, as I came to see the toll this approach took on her well-being. It was a fool’s errand, like arguing that Melville shouldn’t write about the ocean, but I couldn’t help it. I’m pretty sure she knew where I was coming from. I never drank with Lucia, I barely drank at all, but it was hardly a secret that alcohol was her central demon. One afternoon I found her conked out, slumping on my couch when I came home, a cigarette burning a hole in the cushion, and a bottle of something from my shelf beside her. Once (twice?) I fished her out of an Oakland drunk tank, and more than once she made me mad. I now know it wasn’t Lucia that angered me, it was the booze.

By all reports, Lucia was a spectacular teacher. I never saw her in the classroom, but there are a few sentences on the Poltroon Press website that give a sense of how wise and succinct about the art of writing she could be. “Often the recalled emotion is painful, the remembered event very ugly. For the story to work, the writing itself must rinse or freeze the initial impulse. Somehow there must occur the most imperceptible alteration of reality. A transformation, not a distortion of the truth. The story itself becomes the truth, not just for the writer but for the reader. In any good piece of writing it is not an identification with a situation, but this recognition of truth that is thrilling.”

Among artists, Lucia felt most at home with poets. Prose writers with their consuming ambitions made her chuckle when they didn’t bore her. Poets, especially younger poets burning with love of language, were her cup of tea. A fair argument could be made, on the strength of her short pieces like “My Jockey,” that Lucia was a poet who just happened to write in sentences. Her actual friendships with poets Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, Denise Levertov, Amiri Baraka, Diane di Prima, Duncan McNaughton, Tom Clark, Gloria Frym, August Kleinzahler, Anselm Hollo, Kenward Elmslie, and Sidney Goldfarb all were important to her. Among prose writers I was often in her company with Steve Emerson, a sure friend over many decades, and Jim Nisbet. I recall her speaking warmly of William Eastlake, Fielding Dawson, and Paul Metcalf, about whom she wrote an essay after he died. Her friendship with Alastair Johnston, a poet himself and publisher of poets’ work, resulted in two books from Poltroon Press over the years. Lydia Davis in New York became a regular correspondent.

In addition, Lucia had a fascination with the novelist Douglas Woolf, an old friend and collaborator of Creeley and Dorn. Woolf followed itinerant pickers through the west for many years and cleaved to the monastic edge of art with a vengeance that Lucia admired. One of her closest friends in the Bay Area was Amelia Johnson, mother of Huey Newton, co-founder with Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party. Alastair Johnston told me once that, when Newton died in Oakland in 1989, his funeral was mobbed. When Lucia arrived, it was hard to get in. “Let the white lady through,” someone yelled. “It’s Huey’s aunt, his aunt is coming through.”

Lucia was a wonderful mix of elegant taste and hardscrabble traveler, fluent in Spanish and good with French. Growing up as Lucia Brown, she and her family moved all over the west and lived at length in Chile, on account of her father’s work in the mining business. She told me that he was feared by mine managers from Billings to the Mexican Sierra Madre. (His principal job, assessing when mines were no longer profitable, earned him the nickname “Shut ’em Down” Brown.) Family plays a prominent role in Lucia’s stories, large, conflicted, striated by alcohol and suicide. Lucia laughed hard and often about them—and wept as well.

Sometime in the late 1980s, she was able to take a year off work. She moved to a nice place in a quiet part of suburban Berkeley. The first day I visited, she was as proud as I had ever seen her. “I don’t know when I ever found time to work,” she quipped. “Come see my bookshelves.” They were beautifully organized, but it took me a minute to get the point of her excitement. They were ordered alphabetically, row after row, case after case of just the best 18th, 19th, and 20th century fiction and poetry, all perfectly arranged from A to Z. “I always wanted to do that,” she sighed. It must have taken weeks. Lucia seemed to have read everything, and she could talk about it with humor and passion. She read Cervantes in the original and all the Latin American writers. Her abiding love was for the modern Russians, chiefly Chekov. She had, it seemed, an inexhaustible supply of anecdotes about the great writers. She could speak of Turgenev as if he had lived next door.

The book Phantom Pain opens with a story originally published (as “Legacy”) in a finely designed letterpress edition from Poltroon Press. This harrowing and hilarious piece, “Dr. H.A. Moynihan,” is one of the many works drawn from Lucia’s childhood. It contains an episode in which a dentist, the girlish narrator’s grandfather, enlists her aid in pulling his own teeth without benefit of anesthesia. In the Poltroon Press edition, a scatter of words on the page where this action occurs appear in red ink so that they seem to be printed in blood. It remains a nice touch by a very classy press, which, like Zephyrus Image, Lucia’s first publisher (the pamphlet “A Manual for Cleaning Ladies,” 1977), helped raise West Coast bookmaking to high art. It also gives me a chance to say that quite a few of Lucia’s pages might best be printed in red blood. They are, years after her death, more alive and vivid than a lot of writing in black on white published then or now. When you read her A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux), you will see what I mean. Lucia Berlin’s stories do seem to be set in their very own color.

Michael Wolfe is a poet, author, translator, and commentator on Islam. For many years he was the publisher of Tombouctou Books in Bolinas, California.

2 thoughts on “Lucia Berlin: The Art of Phantom Pain

  1. Thank you so much for this.
    I first heard of Berlin’s stories through Alastair.
    Her language, yes seemed off hand at times but spot on to the situation she described.
    I wanted to know more about her.
    So again, thanks to you, and to Poltroon Press.

    1. Just seeing your thanks, now. You’re most welcome. Lucia was one of a kind, like all real artists. In retrieving your email I came upon some color photos of your productions. Congratulations, they’re terrific

      Michael W

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