Arion Lyre

80. The Boobus and the Bunnyduck by Michael McClure, with art by Jess

MORE ABOUT THE BOOK

Collectors of Arion Press books who may wonder at its publication of a children’s book should understand that this is first and foremost an artist book of considerable sophistication. And it is not the only Arion book to present a tale ostensibly aimed at the young while bringing immense satisfaction to adults. In 1986, the press published Gertrude Stein’s The World Is Round with pictures by Clement Hurd, a story about a girl named Rose (as in “Rose is a Rose is a Rose”) who carries her chair to the top of a mountain and sits there and sees that she is “there”. More unusual is the publication of a facsimile without typographic interpretation. Here again the portfolio of facsimiles of William Blake’s watercolors illustrating John Milton’s Paradise Lost, published in 2004, is a precursor to The Boobus and the Bunnyduck. Both are made possible by a recent advance in printing technology, the inkjet printer, that attains remarkable fidelity to the original artwork.

The name “Boobus” may make one think of a “booby”, usually meaning a dunce or slow-witted person. Here, McClure endearingly uses it for a child not yet conditioned by the world but having intuitive sympathy for other creatures, whatever shapes they may take. Such a child might join two or more animals’ names together, creating a new name, which could account for the “Bunnyduck” in the story. In the mid-fifties Jess was publishing his versions of Christian Morgenstern’s Gallowsongs that mention creatures combined of more than one animal, such as a “Giraffricanary”, a “Rhinocerostrich”, and an “Eagleowl-Dove”. Pertinent too may be his first publication, a two-page Dadaistic collaboration with Duncan called “Boob #1” and “Boob #2” (1953). One might think of the duck-rabbit figure of Joseph Jastrow (1899, based on cartoons from 1892), also used by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein to show how a simple figure can be perceived in two ways, in this case as a duck or as a rabbit. Other artists, such as Max Ernst, Jasper Johns, and Ray Johnson, also employed the duck-rabbit image, but McClure denies any such influence.

As a child Jane McClure was a kind of muse to other poets who were friends of her parents. Philip Lamantia and Philip Whalen both wrote poems about the “Boobus”. They, like Michael McClure, were published by Auerhahn Press in San Francisco, a small literary house established by Dave Haselwood in 1958 that printed its books by letterpress. Auerhahn is in the lineage of Arion Press: Andrew Hoyem joined Haselwood in partnership in 1961. and its equipment is still in use at Arion.
Neither the author nor Jane’s mother, Joanna McClure, could recall the exact date of composition or how the book came to be. They remember seeing this precious work of art and showing it to Jane, carefully, when she was a child.

Besides three loose crayon illustrations for L. Frank Baum’s Sky Island, very much in the bright “Boobus” manner, the drawings for The Boobus and the Bunnyduck are the only color illustrations that Jess did for a book. The special wax crayons used by Jess were made by Gui de Angulo, daughter of the writer Jaime de Angulo, who taught Robert Duncan about American shamanic practices.

Best known for his intricate hermetic collages and his mysterious, heavily layered paintings, Jess was also a prolific book illustrator during the poetry renaissance in San Francisco in the 1950s and 1960s. He did covers and drawings for volumes by Helen Adam, Denise Levertov, Stephen Jonas, Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Jack Spicer, and himself. The Boobus and the Bunnyduck is his most beautiful and lavish book production. He had already made another children’s book, for Robert Duncan’s The Cat and the Blackbird, with dense ink drawings and lettering. He began it in 1953 and completed it in 1957. The book was published by White Rabbit Press in 1967. This story of the quest by a cat, a blackbird, and a girl named Susan for a golden “honeymoon” may have inspired McClure to a similar attempt. His tale is about a little girl and her floppy-eared companion (a combination rabbit and duck) who recover a magic fire.

Boobus and the Bunnyduck coverAlthough Jess was aware that his pages for The Boobus and the Bunnyduck presented difficulties for a printer, he expressed the hope that one day this story would be published, and during conversations in later years he would sometimes refer to the characters fondly and with a smile. However, attempts to find a publisher over the years came to naught. Coincidentally, around the time Arion Press was determining to issue this facsimile in 2007, the poet’s daughter Jane, now a medical doctor, asked her father whatever had become of “The Boobus and the Bunnyduck” that she remembered from her childhood, and McClure was able to tell her the good news it was about to be published, on the fiftieth anniversary of its creation.

THE ARTIST

The artist known as Jess stopped using his last name, Collins, when he became estranged from his family in the late 1940s. His given name was Burgess. He was born in 1923 and raised in Long Beach, California. He attended California Institute of Technology, was drafted into the Army Corps of Engineers in 1943, and worked during the war as a chemist for the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

After the war, he returned to Cal Tech and graduated with honors in 1948. He worked briefly at the Hanford Atomic Energy Project in Hanford, Washington, but became disillusioned with his career in science for military uses and enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), studying with Clyfford Still, Hassel Smith, Elmer Bischoff, and David Park.

In 1950, Jess met the poet Robert Duncan, and their domestic alliance lasted until Duncan’s death in 1988. Jess died in 2004 at the age of eighty. Their homes were filled with books and art. “The Household of Robert Duncan and Jess: An Intimate Portrait of a Legendary Home”, a documentary film produced by Christopher Wagstaff and David Fratto, issued on DVD in 2006, shows the interior of their last house, shared for over twenty years.

Jess began making collages in the early fifties, but called them instead “paste-ups”, using images in magazines, old engravings, illustrations, and jigsaw puzzles. While similar in process to works by Max Ernst and Joseph Cornell, his paste-ups tended to be much larger in scale, as much as six feet wide and high. His paintings could be abstract, figurative, narrative, and romantic. Best known may be his series of paintings called “Translations”, done between 1959 and 1976. These pictures, painted in thick layers, were composed from various sources. One copied a photograph of the Beatles at the seashore from a bubble-gum trading card.

Though he was reclusive and saw only a few close friends, Jess was revered for his enigmatic art by the cultural community of San Francisco, and his reputation grew in the 1970s. Works by Jess are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C., and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A major retrospective, “Jess: A Grand Collage”, was mounted at the Albright-Knox Museum in Buffalo, New York, in 1993, and traveled to New York, Washington, and San Francisco. An exhibition, “Jess: To and From the Printed Page”, organized by Independent Curators International, opened at the San Jose Museum of Art in March 2007 and is scheduled for six more venues around the country into 2009. The estate of Jess is represented by Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York.

THE AUTHOR

Michael McClure was born in Kansas in 1932. In 1954 he settled in San Francisco attracted by the burgeoning the literary scene. There, in 1955, he participated with Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder in the legendary group reading at the Six Gallery and soon became identified with the Beat Generation. His first substantial book of poems, Hymns to St. Geryon, was published by Auerhahn Press in 1959, followed by Dark Brown in 1961. His long poem Lie, Sit, Stand, Be Still was published by Arion Press in 1995 with twenty-four lithographs by the sculptor Robert Graham, who also made a bronze bas-relief for the box lid. McClure is a playwright as well as a poet. His controversial play The Beard is an imaginary encounter between Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow. In 1967, McClure read at the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, becoming a leading figure for the Hippie counterculture. His bibliography now extends to some forty titles. He performs and records with keyboard player Ray Manzarek (of The Doors) and has recently recorded with minimalist composer Terry Riley. McClure’s songwriting credits include “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz”, recorded by Janis Joplin. His numerous awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Obie Award for Best Play, and NEA and Rockefeller grants. He taught for many years at the California College of the Arts. McClure and his wife, the sculptor Amy Evans, live in the Oakland hills.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Permission to publish The Boobus and the Bunnyduck was granted by the Jess Collins Trust, Christopher Wagstaff and Mary Margaret Sloan, co-trustees, and by Michael McClure. Christopher Wagstaff and Andrew Hoyem collaborated on writing this booklet. Glenn Todd was the go-between who instigated this publication.

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