Brautigan Was Here

The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966

by Richard Brautigan
Simon & Schuster, 206 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Trout Fishing in America, The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, In Watermelon Sugar

(Three works in one volume), by Richard Brautigan
Delacorte, 416 pp., $6.95

The Brautigan phenomenon, California filtered through Brautigan, has been working itself out, in prose and verse, for several years now. How far has it got, and where is it going? Like the hitchhikers who stand beside Route 1 thumbing rides simultaneously in both directions, it is a distinctive phenomenon which is hard to assess. Still, Brautigan has now moved publishers—whether up, down, or sideways—from City Lights Press to Simon and Schuster, and the occasion is obviously ripe for inquiry.

We begin by distinguishing: on the one hand there is Brautigan’s poetry, on the other Brautigan’s prose. About the poetry, I can’t pretend to offer a very assured judgment. There is a great deal of it, and I haven’t seen it all. What I have seen is in a minor key: it comes on rather like the more playful poems of e. e. cummings. There are lots of lively small poems on small, occasional topics; considerable charm, a nicely understated wit—it is deft writing, and that, for a poet, is not much of a compliment.

One of the best things about this poetry is that it doesn’t try very hard. Its metaphors drop neatly into place without any agony of thought or torment of feeling. The largest statements I have seen the poet undertake verge on sentimentality (“The Galilee Hitch-Hiker”) or nostalgia (“1942”); a good deal of what he turns out is what used to be called jeux d’esprit, vers de circonstance, or some other French name implying more sauce than substance.

A nice, medium-sized Brautigan poem, by which the general tenor of his verse can be gauged, is “The Return of the Rivers”:

All the rivers run into the sea;
yet the sea is not full;
unto the place from whence the rivers come,
thither they return again.

It is raining today
in the mountains.

It is a warm green rain
with love
in its pockets
for spring is here,
and does not dream
of death.

Birds happen music
like clocks ticking heavens
in a land
where children love spiders,
and let them sleep
in their hair.

A slow rain sizzles
on the river
like a pan
full of frying flowers,
and with each drop
of rain
the ocean
begins again.

It is elegantly balanced verse, on a theme that the author himself announces as commonplace, but that he redeems into (at most) charm by a set of carefully graduated metaphors, from the cheap use of “love” early on to the pointedly anti-poetical “pan full of frying flowers” at the end, dropped in to make sure we don’t take the dreamy tone too seriously.

The prose pieces (one can’t call them novels or even fictions—they may well go down in literary history as Brautigans) now number four, and to this reader’s taste, they are much more impressive than the poetry. But they are not easy to describe. They are always set in California, they are always first-person …

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