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My Odyssey Through the Underground Press
excerpt: pp. 423-427

on American Avatar N° 4

Michael Kindman

A Last Hurrah

While Mel and company were at the Vineyard, they began work on the next issue of American Avatar. This time, the magazine transmogrified into a large-format, relatively slick imitation of a journal of general culture and trendiness that was dated Summer 1969 (I believe it appeared late summer or early fall, but it might have been earlier, in time for us to take it to "Woodstock"). It was numbered "Fourth Cycle, First Issue," and was priced at $1, a high price for that era. On the cover was a photograph, by Mel, of David and Faith Gude's young daughter Clothilde and headlines announcing three of the articles inside, including an "Exclusive Interview with Antonioni's Newest Superstars." The first page of the magazine included an elaborate staff listing with no fewer than 33 members of the community listed in various positions, from editor-in-chief (Mel, of course) and executive editor (Jessie) all the way down to director of maintenance. A table of contents listed twelve articles and features, only a few of which were by Mel Lyman, and a box of publication data promised bi-monthly publication. The magazine had not yet been published bi-monthly at any time, and never would be. This was the first issue of the "fourth cycle," and the last issue ever of American Avatar.
The first feature was an "Editorial," untitled and unsigned but obviously Mel's work. It was yet another restatement of Mel's political philosophy of the time, and appeared facing a photograph of a statue of a Revolutionary War soldier, perhaps Paul Revere:
Only in this country could such a wondrous revolution take place. ... This revolution is the test and the fruition of true democracy, of the people, by the people, for the people. There is spirit in the air again, and without a world war yet! That is encouraging. We are not uniting against an alien power, we are uniting against each OTHER! Not even north against south this time, even that won't work anymore, we are virtually eliminating geographical warfare, we are fighting man against man, we are fighting for something bombs can't buy, we are fighting for LIFE! America is getting stale, we are fighting for LIFE!

Revolution or Bust?

The next article, "No Solution to Revolution" by Wayne Hansen, tries to place Mel's message in a larger historical context. Generally speaking, Wayne describes a dialectical model of historical change in which opposing forces become more polarized through the unfolding of events until there is no choice but for a great leader to emerge spontaneously, uniting the opposites from a completely new vantage point. He attributes such a role to Hitler, whose unexpected violence in storming over Europe forced the United States and its allies to confront him, thereby ending the historical isolationism of this country.
He then discusses the early deaths by assassination of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, all of whom, he says, had the potential to unite and lead the country out of its despair and confusion, had the country been ready to follow their examples and the forces of the status quo not been so strong. Next he talks about the generation that developed the hydrogen bomb and, as an afterthought, went to the moon, and the generation of its sons and daughters, the young people who were now attempting to develop a new language and a new world view that could transcend the limited world of their parents.
To a sensitive idealist it is a time of such universal agony, he must pledge his total understanding to alleviate it. ... The conservative pragmatist sees only the destruction of his values and his society... With these forces separating further and further every day, with men being continually thrown back upon themselves and forced into acting from the depths of what they hold most dear, the time is coming when every individual will be absolutely real, when words and concepts will be unable to mask ulterior motive, when everything will be reduced to exactly what it is, and only then will there be room on earth for entire and true creation.
I never understood what Wayne was talking about in this article. The catchy title sounded like advocacy for revolution as it was then understood, that is either violent or nonviolent thoroughgoing opposition to existing social and political structures. But the article doesn't seem to support this notion, focusing instead on cryptic generalizations about recent European and American history and offering after-the-fact rationalizations for how things had turned out, ignoring the power plays and manipulations that had produced those results. This was not my view of history.
Wayne's concluding reference to Mel's "Declaration of Creation," in which Mel promised to "burn down the world," only confused me more, unless one assumes Mel himself is the great man, the historical force who can polarize society so thoroughly that something truly new will result. I was not convinced. Mel himself did little to clarify the issue with his latest "Essay on the New Age," which followed Wayne's article. It's a garbled statement about the place of law in governing society, and the moral authority some people have to act outside the law when they perceive a higher necessity.
These people are on the way to becoming the new legislators of this land, the poles are shifting. ... They have conceived of a wiser way to live. So far they have no legislative power, they can only resist. But they have a power far greater than the power to control action, they are invested with the future of the world.
Following Wayne's article is an allegorical fable about two animal kings who confront each other annually in a ceremonial war-for-a-day. Next comes the feature interview with Mark and Daria, which is actually the partial transcript of a conversation between them, several members of the community, and a visiting Italian journalist who found himself unexpectedly sitting with the American stars of the latest film by one of Italy's most successful and controversial filmmakers. Over many pages of dialogue, little clarity emerges about Antonioni's film or about Mark and Daria; what does come through is that Mark and Daria (who had only been on the Hill for three days at the time of the interview, even though she reports having had powerful dream visions of it in advance) are struggling to integrate their experiences with Antonioni, Mel, and the community. Jessie and Owen seem to be doing a lot of their talking for them, fitting their comments into some prior notion of how it all fits into what is happening on the Hill. The interview ends as Mark is about to tell of a major confrontation with Antonioni during the filming; the continuation is promised in the next issue, the one that never appeared.
(My recollection from Hill gossip is that at a certain point in the months of filming, Mark, feeling compelled to bring Antonioni and Mel together, walked off the set in California and returned to Boston to rejuvenate himself with a hit of Mel. Mel, in effect, ordered him back to the filming - otherwise, all that fame and fortune would go out the window - and Mark reluctantly returned to Antonioni's influence, but never gave up trying to bring Antonioni to Fort Hill to meet a"real" filmmaker and some "real" revolutionaries. That meeting never happened. "Zabriskie Point" opened to tepid reviews; it flopped financially and critically.)
The magazine continues with several articles about current affairs and foreign policy, drawn from diverse sources. The section appears to be an attempt to present the magazine as a serious and balanced commentary on world affairs, despite its highly idiosyncratic character in other articles.

Messages From Beyond

The political articles are followed by several pages of letters to Mel and his responses. In the first letter, Paul Williams - former Cambridge resident, precocious editor of Crawdaddy magazine, and long-time friend of Mel and the community - spells out his excitement and joy at Mel's announcement that he is Christ. "I can feel no envy of your greater strength, but only great joy, knowing that you, like me, continue to choose to expand, knowing that any strength you have is my strength & my strength in turn is so much the greater because it can contribute, does contribute, to yours. ... Jesus, brother, you have my undivided support!" Mel responds, "[Y]our letter is the first real reply to the meat of last issue, 'The Dread Proclamation.' No one knows what it has meant or who was compelled to do it. It is a man who never knows what he will have to do next."
Mel's responses to several other letters emphasize the same point, that greatness and true creativity and spirit are only found when one pushes oneself beyond one's own boundaries and capabilities.
The magazine's major feature follows. At long last, Mel and company had chosen to explain and present the "Box Poems" to the world. An introductory essay by Eben Given discusses an experience of the great psychologist Carl Jung, as described in his autobiography. Jung had found himself one day chiseling, into a large piece of stone, a poem he did not compose but that came through him automatically. The voice in the poem is of a disembodied spirit whose perceptions transcend and rise above those of mortals on earth. "It is the voice which he listened for, all ears, throughout a long and discerning life - a voice which became at times the voice, beyond words, beyond images - the voice that speaks when all the meaner voices are momentarily stilled."
He goes on to introduce the thirty Box Poems that appear in this issue:
Written down in the early 1960s, they are as authorless as the poem at Bollingen [Jung's home at the time of his automatic writing experience]. The phenomenon of their making, which at the time attracted certain scientific minds at Duke University, is still for that factual and over-documented world to discover. To those of us who only attempt to live more closely to the message of the poems themselves, in consciousness of that place from which all whole truths, like great poems, emerge, it would be as silly as attempting to dissect the writings of Mel into vowels and consonants and saying, "Here it is - this is how he does it."
He then explains further how the Box Poems were created, drawn one word at a time from a box into which hundreds of words on little slips of paper had been placed, in a moment of mysterious creativity shared by Eben himself and several of his friends. The poems had subsequently been entrusted to Mel, who, I believe, had done some editing and rearranging to make them come out as literate as they appeared, but this part of the story was not told in the magazine. The poems were presented as though complete from the moment of their creation; they speak in the same otherworldly and spiritual voice as Jung's disembodied poetic source. Many of the images seem to be Christian, that is, concerned with Jesus Christ and his life and its meaning as interpreted down through the ages.
It's easy to see from reading the examples in sidebar 4 why these mysterious poems had won the hearts of Mel and Eben. The poems speak in such a similar voice to theirs, and probably were among their teachers when they were wandering artists during the hectic and unpredictable days before they settled on Fort Hill. Laid out here on many pages of American Avatar, printed against photographic backgrounds of stormy and dramatic skies (photographed by Mark Frechette), they were at last being presented to the world in a cogent form. As mysterious and obfuscating as I found the rest of this issue of the magazine, I found the Box Poems a welcome and illuminating counterpoint. I had my own favorite, one that was not included in the magazine, but that Eben had painted in floor-to-ceiling glory on the living room wall in House Number Four. It was another retelling of part of the Christ story, from the mother's point of view. I think it appealed to me not because of the Christian imagery but because it reminded me of my own life story then in the making, and whose motivation neither my mother nor anyone else from my past could figure out.
My son has found truth
somewhere in a sky
that looks like one grey weeping eye to me

I bore him under a blinding star
but he comes from some land not in me

What piercing sorrow not to know
Where your one child must go.

The magazine ends with a "Contemplations" piece by Mel, in which he gives what appears to be the moral of the entire issue:
All that really matters in this life is a man's inner worth, what he still has left when all the chips are down... When a man is alone with himself and all his deeds are behind him what is there left that he can truly call his own. If there is nothing then he is nothing. If there is understanding then he has made good use of his time here.
Life is a struggle for everyone, Mel says, and no one knows how life will unfold as we take one step after another.

Sidebar 4: Three Box Poems

No poem is this....a shadow on the page
that could have held his song
if blazing death had not seared down through all his bones
to bring his requiem out

I wish I could give glory to this man
but words are like the pebbles on the shore
to the endless living ocean of a soul

Bear witness gates of death
that I have never ceased to knock at doors
I know will never hear

Bear witness
that my love has been as great as I could bear

and know my love
I sing of you

and always will

* * * * * * *

My face is sheeted with tears

I say
I say
that all my saints have gone

Does any other god have ears for me
or must I
stalk through this world wondering
why men live on and on
and gods die fast

* * * * * * *

Will you never risk me

Not ALL things live in the light
or hang in a silver sky
like a cross

A past age will tell you how beauty was hidden
in a circle of thorns

The origin of the nightbirds song
and nights kisses
and tomorrows snow
ivory bones
revolting thoughts
unsuspected love
and blazing vision
All these strange things are known only in finality

You must dare to live in darkness

NOTE: From American Avatar "Fourth cycle, first issue" (Summer 1969): 28-41.

12. Find a Niche and Fill It pp. 427-429

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