His best, most haunting work came late, in 2013.
Could Jack Mueller, a famed “post-Beat” poet from San Francisco who later moved to Ridgway, have known he had only a few years to live when he wrote “Amor Fati,” published by Lithic Press?
How many of us can ever know with that sort of specificity?
“Amor Fati” (Latin for “love of fate”) is “distinctly the work of an older writer,” reviewer Maggie Milner wrote, which “tackles almost exclusively cosmic questions — about mortality, love and our relationship to language.”
It was Mueller’s great summing up. He did it in what felt like aphorisms — koans of a kind.
Truth edged in from alongside, emerging from a mien relentlessly provoking, and provoked. As he put it in his title work: “Me, I’m still carving on paradox poetics, with plural headway, but without immediate announce.”
“All power to the paradox,” Mueller used to exhort his friends. “Stay solid in the mystery.”
A war distempers me
An overheard remark
Makes it impossible to sleep.
The slow combat of classes in peacetime
Edges me out of the restaurant,
An insect invades my diet.
A poem I didn’t ask for
Writes a year off my life,
A virus stops a hot work cold.
The subtitle of “Amor Fati” is “New & Selected Poems.” “While it is not surprising to remember that ‘Amor Fati’ includes decades-old poems beside new ones, it is impossible to know which are those of a younger man, which of an older,” Milner observed. “All are intensely preoccupied with death, imminent or distant, fearsome or benevolent … The art of living peaceably, Mueller tutors, lies in understanding this central contradiction: ‘To be alive and dying at the same time.’”
Mueller passed away in May 2017. His verse will stand as one form, and maybe the best form, of epitaph. But however articulate they may be, writers never get the last say. Biographers and documentarians will weigh in, too, and tonight (Thursday), a documentary by Kyle Harvey, a poet, artist and filmmaker who was Mueller’s good friend, will play at the Sherbino Theater. “Portolano: A Film About Jack Mueller,” will show at 7 p.m.
The film, which premiered at the Lithic Gallery and Bookstore in Fruita last October, features interviews with Mueller’s contemporaries, fellow post-Beat poets who knew him in North Beach, like 74-year-old Neeli Cherkovski and 85-year-old Jack Hirschman, as well as more-recent friends from the San Juans, scribes such as Art Goodtimes, a cofounder of the Talking Gourds poetry group, Wendy Videlock, of Grand Junction, and Danny Rosen. “Amor Fati” was published by Lithic Press, which is based in Fruita. Rosen, Lithic’s owner, has credited his admiration for Mueller’s outsized talent and literary output with the desire to found a printing press (Lithic has since gone on to pubish numerous Western Slope writers).
Tonight’s documentary takes its title from the atlas/navigation manual used by sailors in medieval times, with charts and maps of ports and rocky coasts. A portolan was a wayfinder. “There are boxes upon boxes of his bar napkins, note cards and poems reflecting this deeply profound, navigational wisdom, from which Lithic Press will be publishing for years, adding to the Jack Mueller portolan,” Harvey wrote shortly after the poet’s passing.
“Jack was a full-time maker, creating everywhere he went … chalking the circumference of what’s what, measuring the distances between things rarely seen, taping off the void, and always ‘Obeying the emerging form.’”
As a writer and artist — a fellow creative — Harvey, too, obeys the emerging form. He also understands the meaning of feeling haunted. His poem “Hyacinth,” winner of the 2013 Mark Fischer Poetry Prize, transforms “the Greek myth of Hyacinth … into an elegy that is at once a dirge and a praise poem,” the contest’s judge Wayne Lee observed. “This is the mature, polished work of a highly skilled and imaginative writer.”
Kyle Harvey’s latest creation is in the form of a documentary. (You get the sense he was inspired by the Mueller shoot: He’s currently filming “It’s Nice to Be With You” about the poet Neeli Cherkovski.)
“From deep within the mystery,” Harvey has written, “Jack continues to offer lessons.”
“Portolano: A Film About Jack Mueller,” screens tonight at 7 p.m.