Wednesday, March 16, 2005

How to Live in Belfast with Scissors

by Jacob Fricke

When I first met Bern Porter I had not yet been taught about Realism and. Romanticism, was just getting by heart Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, had not rote-learned the European Enlightenment, had never heard the song “Over There” or seen Rosie the Riveter. As a guest speaker one early spring afternoon, Bern dumbfounded our history class with the story of Hiroshima, the surprise of the Manhattan Project, the Banana Rodeo and International Mail Art, poem books made from advertisements and medical manuals, Sciart, the Porter Plantation and the Saturn Moon Rocket, an Institute for Advanced Thinking, the lingering, science–born terrors of radiation, and no sons. The stunned eighth-grade history teacher afterwards pronounced him a real nut and promised us he’d never be called back again. For my part I felt as though the world and all my senses had opened up. My mind, I knew, had been freed as from a long subterranean residence.
Having heard the unheard-of story of this man, like a surreal gospel, I began to notice his shapeless and stately figure, with halo of disheveled white hair, very often about town in the place I had lived all my life, hitherto invisible. Here was this world-renowned physicist who had helped create the modern age looking more like a bag lady than anything else, shuffling along always on foot and bent on collecting scraps of old bread, and children’s toys from the street, destined for unimaginable art—at once a Diogenes and a da Vinci. Often in a bathrobe at public functions, even when playing a part, ready to hammer away his input at city council meetings like an inevitable Nor’easter, and invariably self-possessed, it was clear to my young mind that here was a person who was free. I met with him several times from year to year, once to ask about nuclear energy and radiation, a few times at the spiritualist church recently opened (to hear from his much referred-to departed wife, to brood on inscrutable fate, or just to affirm that the plasma lasts forever, I cannot guess), and once many years later when I accosted him on the street one day trying to pry from him the procedure and names for publishing a book of found art. I had heard that he openly questioned the need for automobiles, and had no car; that he very much lived off of free food taken from public events, that he turned the trash he collected—dolls, parts of cars, gizmos, bottles—into sculpture, books, and assemblages of living art, living literature published with his last dime. To a mind still unreservedly idealistic he embodied, like a kind of Greek philosopher, the boldness of living according to one’s own thoughts, the wealth of self-sufficiency when your treasure flows from the Mind, the uncanny surprise of looking at the world with your eyes and not with your ideas, hand-me-downs nearly every one. I went to the public library and pored over Wastemaker, Sounds That Arouse Me, Sweet End, The Manhattan Telephone Book. His books taught me that freedom from the Reason, from the tired old handshake between Reader and Plot, trimmed with Good Behavior, did not mean freedom from meaning, pertinence, delight. I saw him as a Renaissance man, a relentless and all-wandering innovator, a grandfather of genuine culture tirelessly trying to tend the strange garden of our times. As he said, “Most of My Days Were Spent in Fixing People Who Had Already Spent Considerable Time Fixing Me.” The old thing is over. Did he succeed? Who can tell? Our senses and faculties have limped along for so long now, it may take 200 years to know.