Thursday, September 20, 2012

From Limits/ are what any of us / are inside: The Life and Work of Larry Eigner

From Chapter I -- Swampscott

Swampscott, Massachusetts is a working class New England town with a sea wall. Long known as a seafaring fishing village, it previously hosted a large commercial fleet in the early 1900s, which sailed daily from the bay. In the 1920s, one man in three was a fisherman. The rest were shoemakers, shoe cutters, yeomen, farmers, or merchants. The town currently has a tiny center with city offices in a building referred to as the Edison Mansion -- a marker of the area. The mansion, designed by James T Kelly, was once the home of Professor Eilhu Thompson who founded Thompson- Houston Electric Company in a merger with Thomas Edison. The city offices close at 1 pm. on Fridays. In the Swampscott Library, now mostly filled with computers and Russian literature, there is a detailed history of the town. Various important events include two incidents of whales washing up on the shore, and Joseph Eigner being awarded a school fellowship. These details point to the nature of the environment, an average working class small town.  Although the librarians are aware that a famous poet once lived in Swampscott, very few of his books reside in the collection.
The Eigner family is one that had been settled in the area for quite some time before Larry Eigner’s birth. His younger brother, Richard Eigner describes his paternal grandfather, Joseph, as a successful Lynn businessman.  Lynn, the neighboring town, was once part of the fishing village in which Larry Eigner grew up. Richard recalls:

He [Joseph] came as an immigrant without any resources at all…. the classic story.  He primarily became a shoe manufacturer and when that business failed, he started another one and sold it for a lot of money. He became connected with Yankee society in Lynn. He built a mansion where he and his wife, Cecilia, raised eight children: three girls and five boys, one of whom would become our father, Israel.

After selling the second shoe business, the elder Eigner went into banking, a common business venture at the time. After the crash of 1929, Joseph Eigner went bankrupt and the financial situation became dire.  However, he had been keeping real estate in his wife’s name so the property remained in the family. One of these houses would later become the place where Larry Eigner would spend most of his life.

In the crash, the elder not only had his large family to support but also in-laws and an extended family. The stress was too much for him and he died shortly after. However, Larry Eigner’s, Israel, father grew up in the environment of a large, successful family. Israel would go onto the attend Dartmouth before settling down with a girl from a neighboring town.

While Bessie Polansky had a less materially secure childhood, Larry Eigner’s mother was raised as a typical New Englander, spending her childhood in Salem, Massachusetts opposite the House of Seven Gables. Eigner wrote of his mother, whose parents immigrated from Lithuania,  “brought here from Chagall’s home town (Slonim) at age 1 by grndma Polansky- 30-odd yrs ago ma thght aloud a few times how her family and/or the town must be going up in Nazi smoke, let’s say.” Richard describes his mother as “bookish and the star pupil, according to her account, of Salem High School. She completely absorbed the Puritanical work ethic and the high validation of literary culture.” It was this combination that would become crucial in the raising of her sons. Her interest in Shakespeare, Longfellow and traditional poetry would be the launching point of her eldest son’s vocation.
Lawrence Joel Eigner was born on August 7, 1927 in Lynn. Eigner, who would be the oldest of three boys, described the event of his birth as:

A forceps injury..…. The doctor Richard Williams, Mother says, apologized for not measuring her right. If he had, she’s said, I would have been delivered in the Cesarean [stet.] way. The doctor told my folks they could sue him for malpractice, but considering the thing an accident or something they let it go…..Either my mother was too small or I was too big.

It is unclear whether the Eigner family knew immediately that their eldest had cerebral palsy. Upon her son’s birth, Bessie began recording the events in a baby book, which would later include details of his two brothers as well. In her impeccable handwriting she notes her first son’s development:
Sept. 26, 1927; baby began to follow voices…baby cooed today on his second month’s birthday, and during the week he started to try to raise himself in a sitting posture….

All these notes point to average occurances in the infant’s development. However, his physical difference would later be noted. On March 3, 1930, Bessie writes:

Larry talks not vey plainly but well enough to be understood. He seems to have a very good memory. He knows quite a number of nursery rhymes. At the end of last summer he began to sit without back support. Although there seems to be little improvement in his left side --it isn’t very marked. I find that excitement upsets him, must be very careful.

In biographical information about the poet, Richard writes:

Along with the identification of Larry's birth injury as cerebral palsy came the widely accepted claim that his disability impaired cognitive capacity, as if limitation on Larry's mental development would match limitations on his capacity to manage his body's physical movements…Bess would not accept this claim…..It was my mother’s campaign to have Larry educated as much as he was. At that time, it was thought that children like Larry could not be educated.

The family lived on Pine Street in Swampscott for two years after Eigner’s birth before moving to 23 Bates Road. Here, the poet would spend the first 50 years of his life rarely venturing out with the exception of three years of schooling at the Massachusetts Hospital School and summers at Camp Jened for the Handicapped in New York State. Richard describes that house at 23 Bates Road as a traditional New England two family residence. At first, the Eigners, lived on the second floor while renting out the first.

This arrangement must have been difficult for Bessie. As they lived upstairs, the young poet rarely went out and it was up to his mother to move him from room to room.  Soon, the family moved to the first floor and the glassed-porch would become the poet’s studio. It would be from this porch that Eigner would observe the nature and all the neighborhood coming and goings.

23 Bates Road is now part of an upper class neighborhood with well-kept houses, most of which have large additions. In the 1920s, though, Italian immigrants, with the exception of the Eigner family, inhabited the short street. Richard describes “the principal address” as:

A tract of land on which a house was built. Most of it [the street] was undeveloped. On the tracts that had been developed, all the
families except for one, came from the same part of Italy
 on the Adriatic Sea: a very impoverished town called Terre.
 They all had the same name, Matera and almost of them were general contractors.

Although the sea was within a few blocks, one would have to take a windy trail that would have been impossible to navigate with an old-fashioned wheelchair. Bates Road is crossed with Charlotte Street, named after an Eigner cousin, led to a dead end and forest. Richard notes:

You walked through a woodsy path and came to a beach. We did have a big bulky wheelchair for outside.  We were always aware that the whole Atlantic Ocean was out there. We could hear the sound…there were things like waves and so forth, but to get to the beach, you had to go through a real wooded swamp-like area through skunk cabbage; I remember pushing that wicker chair through the woods.

Despite the rarity of such journeys, the ocean would become a main character in both Eigner’s early and later poems.
Bessie had her son involved in physical therapy from early on. In an interview, Eigner describes:

As a kid, physiotherapy was the hardest part of the time (I went to the clinic in Boston’s Children’s Hospital 3 times a week then at the age of 10 or 11 stayed there as an in-patient for a few months) real scary, like mountain climbing on a seesaw when I tried walking, and perverse failure when flexing my left ankle. All things else were like physiotherapy (While my folks would walk me too, from bedroom to kitchen standing behind holding me: I’d also sit on chairs as well as armchairs, and travel, before I had the walker, around the house on my knees.)

From Chapter Five: Cid Corman’s Radio Program

The beginning of Eigner’s lifetime correspondence with poets started with a postcard to Boston poet Cid Corman who had a radio show. This letter was the connection that would lead Eigner into the world of poetry. The poet describes the event:

In 1949, a couple of months after finishing up the last course (at the U of Chicago) I bumped into Cid Corman reading Yeats, on the radio, in his first program, I gather, for Boston. I disagreed with his non-declamatory way of reading and wrote him so. This began a correspondence in which I got introduced to things, and the ice broke considerably.

Although just three years older, Corman quickly took on a mentorship role to the “younger poet.”  In April 1950, shortly after their correspondence began Corman writes, “Your writing pleases me. It is gratifying that you have only taken criticism, but persisted with it to the point of improvement.” He follows with, “You must teach yourself – and be patient with yourself. If you can’t be, who else is likely to be -- as who else can positively care as much?”

It was through Corman that Eigner’s interest in poetry was rekindled after a pause from his engagement with it as a teenager. Both through his correspondence courses with the University of Chicago and his mother’s influence, the poet had exclusively been exposed to more traditional poetry. Well into his teenage years, he continued to write rhyming verse. Not only was this what his was familiar with, but also poetry in rhyme made it easier to retain while waiting for a family member to transcribe it. His first collection, Poems, published in 8th grade was a reflection of such. Though, the poet was not reading Longfellow exclusively. By the time he wrote to Corman, he was deeply involved with e.e. Cummings and Hart Crane.

As Eigner continued to correspond with the Bostonian and send him poems, Corman encouraged his friend to be more open and experimental. It was through this exchange that Eigner began to leave behind the poetry of his youth in what Richard describes as “rebelling against his mother.”  Corman, perhaps sensing rebellion writes, “Fewer people who liked your earlier things will like these newer pieces, but I think you must realize yourself how much better they are.” Corman advises, “If you are unsatisfied with a poem, any part of it, keep at it. Say exactly what you want to – that is, keep the overtones, ambiguities, tied to your ideas. Pack your words tight – and yet naturally.”  He also mentions, “You might look over some Williams” for a reference to directness.  The concepts  of “immediacy and force” were two considerations that would stick with Eigner throughout his vocation.

 Despite Corman’s worry that “some people would not like his work” Eigner began publishing shortly after this first correspondence. According to Curtis Fayville:

Eigner's first published poem--aside from a number of juvenile pieces published prior to age 14--appeared in the fugitive little magazine Goad #3 [Summer 1952], edited by Horace Schwartz. Schwartz was a connected participant in the literary world of the Bay Area in the 1950's and '60's, who knew Rexroth, Kees (both he and Schwartz had come from Nebraska) and many other local figures, and briefly ran a bookstore in San Francisco (Named the Rexroth bookstore). Goad lasted for four issues, and also published early work by Creeley and Ferlinghetti.

Corman’s own magazine Origin had its beginnings in 1950 with a correspondence, previous to the magazine’s publication, between Charles Olson and the editor. Of the magazine, the first contributor, Olson, writes, “The thing you ought to know, is, that you have the will to make a MAG is a very fine thing, and is hailed by this citizen.” Olson urges Corman to resist taking money from the University (in this case Brandeis) as he worries that the association will damage the integrity of the magazine. He writes:

yr two letters arrived today, about BRANDEIS. But I am here most practical: the test you are looking for, of such censorship as Lewisohn, Hindus and Elder Gerard is, precisely, these 50 pages, NOT, the first year of yr editorship. For you will put yourself in the position of earning their approval, invariably, that you will woo it, that first year. Which, my friend, is worse than outright censorship.

Olson pushed to use the first issue of Origin as a platform for his work - what would become the Maximus Poems - urging Corman, “Can you, will you, by some means (even a notary, maybe?) give me absolute assurance you will (despite all weathers, fair or foul) give me the 40 pages of issue #1 you have told me you plan to give me?”  And on the envelop of a letter dated March 1, 51, Olson writes, “O my sone, rise from thy bed…/work what is wise.” This became the “motto” for Origin securing Charles Olson’s hand in the venture. *

From Chapter 10 Berkley/Independent Living

The Independent Living Movement had its early beginnings in 1962 when Ed Roberts applied to the University of California, Berkeley. Roberts was rejected by the Dean on the grounds, “We have tried cripples before and it didn’t work.” In addition to non-accessible classrooms and libraries, a major issue for Roberts was that there was no dormitory that could support the iron lung he slept in as treatment for polio.  The attitude of the time was best expressed by the poet Josephine Miles who thought of the inaccessible campus as “simply not being built for me.” Miles, who had acute rheumatoid arthritis, dealt with the issue of mobility by being carried from location to location by assistants rather than using a wheelchair.  She, like most of society, viewed disability as a personal problem.

However, with Roberts persisting, the school soon agreed to let him reside on the third floor of Crowall Hospital and enlist fellow students to help him get around campus. He joined with others to form the activist group, The Rolling Quads.  In 1968, when the Quads faced eviction, they organized a revolt that would lead to the creation of curb cuts and other accessibility - on and off campus. Robert’s revolution also led to the Physically Disabled Students Program (PDSP).  
PDSP took its ideas from a program that gave minorities resources to prevent dropouts. Out of this came the first Center for Independent Living (CIL). The basis of the CIL was to provide people with disabilities complete control over where and how they wanted to live. Previously, people with disabilities had been resigned to spending their lives in institutions or, in rare cases such as Eigner’s, provided for by their families. In both cases, neither led to a choice of lifestyle. Wheelchairs themselves were not geared toward independence nor thought of as mobility tools, hence the outdated expression “wheelchair bound.” They were devices that provided limited movement in hospitals or at homes.

Instituted in 1972, the Center for Independent Living was run by people with disabilities who had control over who their caretakers would be and where they would live. The founding of the CIL coincided with Judy Heumann’s civil rights struggle in New York City. In 1970, Heumann, a quadriplegic who had had polio, was denied a license to teach in New York City Public Schools despite passing the oral and written tests. When she flunked the physical, Heumann sued the Department of Education with a discrimination charge, and the case was settled in the defendant’s favor. If these events crossed the Eigner’s path in his copious reading, he did not mention it in letters. However, the movement was not alien to Richard. It was with the expectation that Richard would eventually take over his mother’s role as caregiver that he set up house in Berkeley.
This was the environment that Larry Eigner moved into when he arrived in the west in 1978. After Israel’s death, it became clear that Bessie would be unable to care for her son herself. Once in Berkley, Richard became the poet’s legal conservator, and it was his intention that his brother become as independent as possible.

The stab at independence didn’t work out as successfully as the poet’s family had hoped. On January 6, 1978 Eigner notes, in a letter to Bessie, “electric [wheel]chair arrived fifteen days ago.” This was his first and meant to provide new independence, particularly in the accessible landscape of Berkeley. But things with the chair weren’t so easy. The poet describes an accident of falling over on campus, “legging myself up with the help up and back with the help of a cop and a passerby.” He complained:

It won’t fold and the batteries, a big job to move, make it too heavy to lift. We agreed, too, it’s not so good for around the house. For instance, I can push backward with my feet, but not forward, it’s soo hvy, and my hand is kept rather busy driving.

Ultimately, he abandoned the new technology for the old, continuing, as he always had, to “scoot” throughout the house in his manual chair.

Upon first arriving in Berkeley, Richard encouraged the poet to settle in a group home (independent living) situation. Eigner, however, who had described his life as “the longest childhood ever,” was recalcitrant against the independence that Richard and his sister-in-law Beverly encouraged.  At first, he lived in a group home similar to the Center for Independent Living on La Loma Street. Throughout letters to his mother, one gets to know his housemates, the attendants, and the poet’s frustration with them.  The house itself, although Eigner didn’t entirely hate it, was an environment of endless drama, particularly around the staff.  He laments to his mother:

The phone’s been disconnected again, 2nd time this year. This time when Anna some weeks ago got a private extension of the one downstairs here was switched to L’s room (L is the attendant who arrived from Philly Easter Monday and the phone company, getting wind of this and disapproving has disconnected. This is the story I get anyway….One remark was that one of the attendants charges her (Adele) when he reads to her (the newest ord…after all).

Cid Corman suggested, “You sound like your living in the center of a 3-ring circus – and enjoying every minute of it. It don’t sound like the porch in Swampscott.” 

However, the Center for Independent Living didn’t have the facilities that the Eigners had hoped. Beverly Eigner remembers: 

We thought it would be a good resource for Larry when he came out here, but it didn’t work out that way. Perhaps The Center was too early in its evolution but it didn’t really help us at all. Actually, it was negative because on two occasions, I brought him into a socialization group, and they said Larry was ‘too spoiled.’ [I] Took him to Cerebral Palsy Association and Larry told them all he could do and that he didn’t need any help which was frustrating because he didn’t listen to what they offered. But we found that he needed some social interaction outside of us because we would cater to his needs and not every one would. So that was a problem, socially. 

1 comment:

David Gitin said...

2nd try at leaving comment. I enjoyed the details on wheelchair and care issues. I have memories of visiting with Larry in Swmpscott, so the Swampscott history was also interesting. I remember the house on Bates Road well. Thanks for all your efforts, JB!

David Gitin