Essays

Like a Veil: on Humanness, Shame, and Mark Baumer

by Jeff Alessandrelli | Contributing Writer

Three years after Mark Baumer was fatally hit by a negligently driven SUV in January 2017, death is still unrepresentative of the writer and environmental activist. Then again, so seemed life when he was brightly lit inside it. While alive, Baumer transcended life; now dead, he transcends death. But I’m getting ahead of myself. In an early letter, Samuel Beckett wrote to a friend: “More and more my language appears to me like a veil which one has to tear apart in order to get to those things (or the nothingness) lying behind it.” Here, then, seems a fitting comment on Baumer’s existence through the prism of language—writing— black words on white paper—in both life and death. His writing endeavored to part invention from convention, to dismantle the customary in order to mindfuck the actual. Beckett’s quote comes close to how art wrapped itself within Baumer. Veil torn, he found much to examine behind it. If, as Beckett wondered, there was a nothingness there, it was one yet full of thingness, ample and worthy of attention.

Wed 10/5/2016, 1:22 PM

Hi Jeff!

I got your book yesterday. It looks awesome. Thanks for the polaroid and the tender buttons card also. More importantly thank you for believing in me.

In all the necessary and subconsciously established ways, the ability to feel shame makes one feel like an adult. And so I presently feel ashamed. The first reason such a disagreeableness envelopes me is because I didn’t know Mark Baumer; not once did we meet. In person or online, we weren’t friends. In the last months of his life we were correspondents, yes, but within the outpouring of grief and tenderness that sprang forth in the world and online after Mark’s sudden death, my mostly inconsequential interactions with Mark (or should I stick with Baumer, thus elucidating for the reader my distance from him? Or should I go with Mark, thus making clear, I fear, my connection-neediness, my desire to be on the inside of what I’m outside against, scratching at) seem decidedly inconsequential.

Writing in the introduction to Meow, Baumer’s first posthumous release, Blake Butler (an actual friend of Mark’s, someone who shared food and drink and laughter with him) states that when Mark died, “. . . America’s cumulative emotio-imaginative capability tipped below the holding point of modern stasis we’ve been living under all our lives. Only those who knew Mark at all could still detect this, despite the countless other warning signs, the sicko headlines streaming by the second through the skin that barely holds our faces together.” Even if I don’t need to strain to believe in our country’s cumulative emotio-imaginative capability stone-dropping downward now that Mark does not reside in it, I am not one of those “only” that Butler mentions.

In Amish Trivedi’s “An I Remember for Mark Baumer,” published on the website Fanzine a year after Mark died, Trivedi, à la Joe Brainard, details in depth his remembrances of Baumer and the author’s unwillingness to accept what reality refuses to relinquish:  

I remember the first time I laughed about something Mark had done after he died. It took me 11 months to remember him and smile instead of feeling sad. I was drunk on Halloween telling my friends I was wearing my Mark hat. They smiled politely because what else can you do?

Other first-hand accounts expound on the magnetic force that Mark occupied while alive and the fettered gulf that he exists in while dead. Writing in the May/June 2017 issue of Brown Alumni Magazine (Brown is where Mark received his MFA) about Baumer’s lively magic, Claire Donato, another pal of Baumer’s, describes how certain of his friends have been writing emails to Baumer after his passing in order to continue interacting with him. “As he was during his lifetime both in the classroom and by constant example, Mark continues to be a remarkable teacher,” one such friend writes. Later in the article, Donato continues, speaking directly to her friend: “I miss you so much. The world feels broken apart. Meanwhile, on Earth, we are all finding fragments of peace—of content—by holding hands and writing together to Mark.”    

Entitled “The Aleatory Abyss,” Evelyn Hampton’s long essay about Mark is also a meditation on the challenging structures and strictures of 21st century American adulthood. Towards the beginning of the piece Hampton, herself a Brown MFA alum, writes:

I have a friend who lives in the horizon. Mark. He lives there in his shirt and pants, wearing a backpack. All he does all day long is walk and walk… He started walking in October. His goal is to get to the other side of something. He has to do it alone. Sometimes he passes people, and people in their cars pass him. They don’t walk with him, though.”

Later in “The Aleatory Abyss,” mention is again made of the moments shared between author and subject, Hampton and Baumer, Evelyn and Mark. Joyous, idiosyncratic, what once was is no longer. “He used to wear glasses. Now he doesn’t have eyes. He doesn’t have teeth. He doesn’t have knees.”      

Outlining their actual memories and encounters with the author, the list of these memorials goes on and on. Nearly every piece I’ve seen written about his creative work has been by someone who knew him. For me, Mark was a computer screen and some books that I purchased on the internet and enjoyed in a casual manner. A Facebook friend that, in fact, I wasn’t actually friends with on Facebook. He was a few emails and a “I would love to meet up” that never happened.

It goes without saying, of course, that one doesn’t need to know an author to connect with their work. (The case could easily be made that the more you like or admire something the further you should keep first-hand knowledge of it away, at triple arm-and-leg length.) With regard to Mark Baumer, however, it’s difficult to tease out how important knowing him was to understanding his writing; while he was alive at least, the two seemed inextricably meshed together. The shame I feel in writing an essay about Mark Baumer’s work without having known him personally is simultaneously the belief I have in Mark Baumer’s work. During his life, the dude touched people on a deeply human level, strident and plain. Not being one those humans, though, the words alone touched and touch me. Now and forever, that will have to be enough.  

***

What I like about Mark’s writing is the absurdity that transcended itself and became real, an aspect of reality rarely acknowledged and yet still deeper than everything else we daily see and think we know. Occasionally fantastical, his work is a compendium of collective thought that resists all manners of literary expectancy.

I am a Road is a travelogue detailing Baumer’s 81-day walk across America in 2010, a journey that took him from Tybee Island, Georgia, to Santa Monica, California. The book begins with the sentence, “A small man in Georgia watched me kneel down and kiss the Atlantic Ocean,” and three hundred pages later it ends at the Pacific Ocean, the author’s trip completed in one sense and barely even begun in another:

When I reached the sand, my body no longer hurt because it was no longer required to be the body I had required myself to be. The spacesuit I had worn the entire trip was soiled with every mile I had traveled. I removed these stains and placed them in a trash barrel. Tears continued to leak from my brain. I no longer had to pretend I wasn’t human. The ocean barely acknowledged me as I stepped into it. I didn’t know what else to do so I just floated.

What it Feels Like When You Cry With Your Brain (a book about what it feels like when you cry with your brain) is a short prose poetry collection debating the mystification of the Denzel Washington in our dreams and longings vs. the one that might actually exist in the “real” world. “Someone made a movie where Denzel Washington was able to express every idea he ever had by saying only one word” reads the entirety of one of the poems. Co-written with Baumer’s roommate, W. Keller, Roommate Missed Connections considers the possibility that the people we live with, those that we may think we know inside and out, are in fact the people we know least—and even the sliver of knowledge we possess is riddled with inaccuracies. Still, we persevere in our love for them, an us: “I made a noise on the other side of a wall, but an hour later I could not remember if that noise was me or you.”  

Published in early 2018 by Burnside Review Press, Baumer’s collection Meow is bound less by words, more by multiverse spectrums of deep-energy-and-string-theory-limned thought. One of my favorite poems from the book reads:

America is a giant barrel of automobiles running on fumes over a barren wasteland. The soil where I was born was constructed from a pile of melted white penises who once crawled out of a herpes sore named “democracy.” Everyone was supposed to bow to this juice hole, but I think we were all too busy looking at the electric wizard standing on his wound ship as the wound ship slowly sunk and so we never realized we were all going to die unless we learned how to breathe with water in our lungs.

Baumer once wrote fifty books in a year, self-publishing each one one of his websites. They were read by some people, I’m sure, but the doing, I think, was more important for him than accumulating readers and/or basking in real or self-delusional literary adulation. He was very prolific in multiple social-media-centered nooks and crannies of the internet, however, so I could be wrong. But. Talking about his work, attempting to size it up so that you, the reader, can contextually understand its contours without having actually read it, is a fool’s errand. “[Y]ou can’t get at a sunset naming colors” is how James Schuyler puts it in his poem “Hudson Ferry,” and that’s the way I feel attempting to describe Mark’s writing. Red, orange, indigo, yellow, blue, green and violet—each one of them still wanting and lacking, unequal to the sight.

Fri 9/30/2016, 12:34 PM

Thanks for ordering the book Jeff!

Maybe I’ll end up passing through Nebraska or maybe I won’t even make it out of Rhode Island. 😅

I think I’m going a little south of Omaha, but I’ll be in touch regardless. I would love to meet up.

Anyway, I wanted to let you know I’m not sending I am a Road until after October 7th. I know you already have a copy of the roommate book, but I’m sending out digital copies of it to everyone who ordered I am a Road to apologize for the delay: Roommate Missed Connections. So now you have both the physical and the digital versions. If for some reason that link doesn’t work let me know and I can try something else.

After his death, people compared Baumer to the Russian absurdist author Daniil Kharms, to the eclectic American mail-artist Ray Johnson, to Andy Kaufman. Featured in The New York Times and The New Yorker, many of these after-the-fact essays and articles focused more on Baumer’s social media presences and environmental activism than his writing. Which is fine—those were central parts of him too—but it’s his literary work that matters most to me, then and now. 

I myself have always thought of his work in conjunction with the writings of Blaise Cendrars and Wanda Coleman. Cendrars, the Modernist/proto-Surrealist Swiss-turned-French author who lost his right arm fighting in World War I and lived the rest of his life as if the annihilated appendage had been a supreme nuisance to begin with, one holding him back from the (singular) ambidexterity of learning how to caress and eat and write left-handed. Consisting of snapshot vignettes of scenes real and imagined, Cendrars’s long prosaic serial poem Travel Notes (1924) brings to mind for me some of Mark’s writing; the sight isn’t in the seeing as much as in the sight’s periphery:

Sunday   

It is Sunday on the water
It’s hot
I’m in my cabin as if trapped in melting butter

Misprints    

Spelling errors and misprints make me happy
Some days I feel like making them on purpose
That’s cheating
I really love mispronunciations hesitations of the tongue
Rainand the accents of all local dialects

Wanda Coleman was a writer whose work seems, on the face of it, to have nothing in common with Baumer’s. Coleman, an African American female, was chiefly known before her death in 2014 as a Los Angeles-centered city poet engaged in work focusing on civic and social inequity. That’s less than half the story, though; the longer and more important half involves how sound and sense dovetail 78% seamlessly in both Baumer’s and Coleman’s oeuvres. To my ears a poem like “Rehabilitation” from Coleman’s 1983 collection Imagoes reads like a slightly less fantastical, slightly more compressed and determined predecessor to one of Mark’s own creations:

Rehabilitation

take one tiger
remove from jungle
file down teeth and claws
zoo
tranquilize, feed, observe
for indeterminate period of time
when finished
return to jungle

***

At the start of his fatal barefoot walk across the country in October 2016 I began a poem entitled “Worms,” giving it a prefatory declaration of For Mark Baumer. The poem opened with the lines: 

Shoes divide the rich and the poor     still still           the worms strut towards our weddings and
funerals all the same                  and in the back of my throat is a stale piece of information
                   that not even a hummingbird could sing out              damp with wreck       
weak with salvage                  You can’t possibly believe in the hope of             but somewhere you do                                         

Finding it stupid and banal, I never finished “Worms” and didn’t go back to it upon finding out about Mark’s death either. Reading the fragment now, I recognize I must have co-opted something from Baumer in its drafting, but where exactly the form of that co-option announces itself I’m unsure. It’s not the words so much as the feeling.

***

In a brief aside in his essay on Chance the Rapper’s capacity for optimism in what seem to be our very dark 21st century times— a personality trait that, even from afar, I know Mark also shared with Chance—Hanif Abdurraqib writes, “What Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks was most aiming toward, I think, was freedom. Freedom for herself, of course, but also freedom for her people—or at least knowing that one can’t come without the other.”   

There couldn’t be two authors more fundamentally different than G. Brooks and M. Baumer and yet when I read those sentences of Abdurraqib’s, I thought of Mark. As an abstraction, freedom is a simultaneously expansive and reductive concept, but the tantalizing nature of those seven letters is illustrative. All writers write to and for freedom, yes, but some make it further along that road than others. Unless they haven’t first afforded themselves some semblance of mental equanimity, one that exists without regard to readership, publication or literary prominence, these authors eventually arrive at a place where, as Gwendolyn Brooks writes in her poem “truth,” “[t]he dark hangs heavily / Over the eyes.” For a writer truly seeking a way out of it, out of all the possible its, freedom is less a blessing, more a responsibility. Or as Baumer puts it in a more distinctive way in one of the short prose poems in Meow:        

The only way to live a complete and full life is if you are elected the president before you are born and then you die in a gunfight a few minutes after the doctor detaches you from the womb.

Freedom complete and full. Endstop. 

Thu 9/22/2016, 7:57 AM

Hi Jeff!

I just got your tumblr message. I’m responding here because I don’t always see tumblr messages. Also, thank you for buying Roommate Missed Connections. I put it in the mail this morning. I hope you like it.

I would love a copy of the Eileen Myles record. I don’t have a turntable, but I think my roommate William has one. 

My address is:

Mark Baumer
XX Pleasant St
Providence RI 02906

Let me know if you need anything else.

How long have you been in Omaha? I was there a few weeks ago to watch my mom do a triathlon. It seemed like a nice/exciting place to live.

We were the same age, Baumer and I. From the same middle-class background, knew many of the same people, had some of the same friends. But it’d be a lie to say I felt a kinship with him. His was an existence that was indubitably foreign to mine in more ways than one. His writing was alien to mine. Compared to my ho-humness, alien was the way he walked and protested, the way he resolutely, without shame, yawp’d.

Still, I felt a grave sadness when Baumer died. It was a sadness borne of not knowing and desiring to know. As a fan of his, I wanted to meet and small-talk about books and colors and mutual friends with him. More importantly, I wanted to learn how someone can live their life by not merely intruding on it. He couldn’t have taught me that. But whether he was aware of it or not, he lived and embodied himself fully and unstintingly. Every day I go chasing the way of being that Mark had, really actually truly being. Reading his work I get a sense but not the full gravity of the thing; Baumer’s poems and stories and books are more than adequate and still insufficient. Through his language and with his life, Mark Baumer found something all his own behind the veil. Dense and culled, it was his. I’m still searching.

Jeff Alessandrelli is most recently the author of the collection Fur Not Light. A longer, updated version of “Like a Veil: on Humanness, Shame, and Mark Baumer” will be released as a chapbook from the small press The Magnificent Field this summer. In addition to his own writing, Alessandrelli also runs the literary record label/press Fonograf Editions. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is at https://jeffalessandrelli.net/.

Cover image from Mark Baumer’s blog: https://thebaumer.com/. For more information on Mark Baumer’s activism, please visit the Mark Baumer Sustainability Fund.