“The art world is so fucking boring it could make your heart cry,” writes the late Jack Micheline in On Valencia Street: Poems & Ephemera (133 pages; Lithic Press; edited by Tate Swindell), and it’s a phrase that neatly captures the vibrancy of Micheline’s gut-wrenching artistic project. On Valencia Street contains an array of unpublished work by the honorary Beat (Micheline purportedly derided the label of “Beat poet” as a “product of media hustle), as well as varying pieces of memorabilia, including drawings of a Basquiat-Johnston lovechild, posters for live readings, and nearly illegible notes written on napkins. Micheline’s aesthetic sense of San Francisco’s Mission District, and its streets which he so valued, has been faithfully and thoroughly catalogued here.
Though often regarded as one of the less nuanced poets of his time, it is Micheline’s straightforward style and eerie emulation of his historical moment that lifts his work off the page. Proclamations like, “The rich and poor will all die broke / We will all go naked to our maker” are the sort of moments of vulnerability and truth that endow Micheline with a profundity that defies the skew of language’s mediation. The directness of excerpts such as “You dead souls work here / No one laughs / Man gone” in “Poem on My 39th Birthday” achieve their poignancy by its plainness.
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Such concepts, beautiful in their skeletal state, surface in nearly every piece and color Micheline’s work with the foundational qualities of the human condition. Distilled in “[Untitled…]” are his notions of life, death, and love: “People / Die / Because / There / Is / Nobody / To / Love / Them.” The poem is placed next to two cool-toned and slightly torn diner napkins, splattered with the blood-red figure of a boy, and in this juxtaposition a stripped down and strikingly pure emotion emanates: Micheline is not condemning the world but mourning for it.
As the book progresses, with the touch of a masterful hand, it gently elaborates and textures Micheline’s basic poetic themes. Near the end, a spread features two posters with a description of a reading: “4 Jacks / 4 Wednesdays,” listing Micheline as the last performer in the lineup. This dialectic of individual experience and homogeneous identification is an apt metaphor for Micheline’s poetry. Although his topics are some of the most common calls (as common as the name “Jack”) to poetics, they are animated by Micheline’s studied and spontaneous subjectivity. Similarly, the physical journey of discovery editor Tate Swindell undertook to produce this book, digging through old boxes in the Tucson garage of Micheline’s son, is echoed in the experience of reading On Valencia Street.
It has been twenty-one years since Micheline’s fatal heart attack during a BART ride between San Francisco and Orinda. In a moment when the city’s cultural legacy seems to be pulsing more faintly, the reproduction of his principles is affecting. His essence, possessed by the aspirations of his subversive city, finds hold in this new look at his work.