Born nearly a century ago, Guy Davenport was unclassifiable. Was he a poet or a polymath? An artist or an eccentric philosopher? As a new collection of his essays is published, John Jeremiah Sullivan recalls his laughter, tears and wit…
The first time I met Guy Davenport, he slammed the door in my face.
Physically, I mean. He opened it and he eyed me through the screen,
Then slammed the heavy wooden inner door closed in my face. Bam.
He yelled from inside, “You do not look like John Jeremiah Sullivan!”
“Not fair,” I replied. “I’ve seen your author photos. I know your face.”
He opened the door again, smiling, holding a cigarette in his fingers.
I considered him a cherished friend from that moment until he died.
This was at his great old house in Bell Court, in Lexington, Kentucky.
My grandmother lived just two blocks away. I could walk to visit him.
His house was built in 1923, meaning it turned a century old last year,
A squat, two-story brick house with a broad wooden staircase inside.
I am writing this the way I am, in uniform lines of an arbitrary length,
Because he liked to do that, to draw boxes and write inside of them.
It was a radical, literal form of “Constraint as the friend of the artist”.
Somehow it tied into his ideas on the oneness of form and meaning.
This would have been 1999 or 2000. I was a books editor at Harper’s.
My friend Roger Hodge said, “Hey, don’t you know Guy Davenport?”
Guy and I had corresponded. I must have dropped his name — Oops!
I wrote to him and asked if he would write a monthly books column.
I was surprised when he agreed, though now looking back I can see
How it was a gratifying invitation for him, at that phase in his career.
Not that he was forgotten, but it is nice knowing the kids revere you.
The collaboration lasted barely two years, the friendship a few more,
Until Guy died of lung cancer at a Lexington hospital in January 2005.
His partner and lover, Bonnie Jean Cox, survived him by twelve years.
Bonnie was the Director of the Collection Development Department
At the University of Kentucky, where Guy was a professor of English.
I loved Bonnie. She was nerdy and warm, but with Yankee sarcasm.
She developed Alzheimer’s, right after Guy died, and forgot everyone.
Their vibe was: he would say outrageous things and she would chide.
People joked that “Bonnie Jean seems like a lesbian and so does Guy”
And it was kind of like that, they sort of seemed like a lesbian couple,
Although, you know? Not really. Guy had his own kind of masculinity.
The strangest part of his biography was that he had been in the army.
He understood well, like his hero Fourier, that our sexuality’s a chord
Made up of notes. We play a few in our lives and leave others muted.
After Guy died somebody tactlessly asked Bonnie Jean if he was gay.
She said something quite colourful about how good the sex had been.
I remember sitting with them in front of Guy’s ground-floor fireplace.
He would burn trash in there, paper bags and empty cigarette packs.
Now and then they would scrounge around for more stuff to throw in,
Especially after they’d exhausted the stack of rejected review copies,
Talking that famous Guy Davenport talk, which will never exist again,
Literary-historical free-association punctuated with dramatic pauses,
Ready to laugh but rarely silly, sometimes gossipy, sometimes bitchy.
He might tell you about a conversation that he had with his neighbours
Or about one that he had with Samuel Beckett at an old café in Paris.
He told me an anecdote about a visit he’d had from Cormac McCarthy,
Who for a time considered Guy’s Geography one of his favourite books.
McCarthy, Guy remembered, had started to pet his cat, a vicious tomcat.
Guy tried to warn him that the cat was mean and hated to be touched.
Sure enough the cat began to hiss and scratch and shredded his arm.
Guy said it was wild to watch, because McCarthy didn’t seem to care.
“He didn’t even flinch,” Guy said, “just smiled and kept petting the cat.”
Guy wasn’t a name-dropper — he just told these stories as they arose.
He liked to hold ideas up to the light and rotate them in his fingertips.
He moved between languages and millennia. I couldn’t always follow.
It might be more correct to say that I was almost never able to follow.
He would occasionally make fun of me when I said something stupid.
I asked if The Anatomy of Melancholy was written in English or Latin.
“John Jeremiah Sullivan did you seriously just ask me that question?”
But I took notes, and the titles that I wrote down became my reading.
Let me say, I don’t want to pretend to have been a close friend of his.
I knew him only during his last five years and it was part professional.
But it was a real friendship that marked me as a person and a writer,
And I consider it part of my role in the world to honour his reputation.
I don’t think there was anyone like Guy. He was what’s called a oner.
That’s pronounced won ’er. Obviously it’s a way of saying sui generis,
But more than that, too. It means somebody who is remarkably keen.
Guy might have guessed that “oner” first shows up in Dickens, in 1841.
The range of knowledge he possessed was startling, even intimidating.
Duke, Harvard, Oxford, Rhodes Scholar, MacArthur Genius, ludicrous.
At the same time, I think he was someone who sincerely believed that
You can learn something interesting from every person you ever meet,
And that no thought is really interesting until you can discuss it plainly.
Curiosity was his philosophy, a way of being alive and liking the world.
I remember the book he had been looking at on that day I first visited.
It was a Chinese translation of one of his own short fiction collections.
He told me a story: He said that a Chinese scholar friend had come by.
Guy had shown him the book and asked him what the subtitle meant.
The scholar gave him a generic answer, like “Foreign Literature Series”.
“But what does it really mean?” Guy asked. He wanted to understand
The symbols. The man, who was Chinese, smiled with embarrassment.
“Finally he told me, ‘Barbarian Writings with Fragrance of Literature.’”
Guy cackled. He loved that. I think it summarised how he saw himself,
As somebody who was working at the end of a civilisation or tradition.
Modernism had been a cultural summit, like the Athenian Golden Age.
We were living in the radioactive ash-lands of whatever that had meant.
His line on the subject in “Au Tombeau de Charles Fourier” is immortal:
“We let the fire die in the engine.” And yet — did his very existence not
Have something to say about that? Guy certainly kept something alive.
Like Sir Ralph Percy, at Hedgeley Moor, he saved the bird in his bosom.
He clung to the beginnings, what he called “the symbol of the Archaic”,
Not Paul but early Jesus, not Socrates but Heraclitus, not God but gods.
He wrote stories that were like essays and essays that were like stories.
Many would argue that his reputation will wind up resting on the former,
But The Geography of the Imagination is nonfiction, and a masterpiece.
As far as “introducing” it, I’d ask only that you enter it in a spirit of play.
That is how it was written. Guy wrote in joy. He loved to make writings.
He once defined “despair” as the sensation that you’ve run out of ideas.
This book will never run out of ideas; it has so many running through it.
Guy himself hands us the metaphor that leads to an optimal approach:
The word labyrinth occurs in these pages a full 44 times, and maze, 13.
His essay “The House that Jack Built” is all about labyrinths and mazes.
It’s one of the most mind-expanding literary essays that I’ve ever read.
It offers a master class in his method: the archaeology of iconography.
For me it was the gateway drug that lured me into the rest of his work
(aided by my brother, Worth, who took English classes with him at UK).
The essay is about books that both have mazes in them and are mazes.
It gets Borgesian when you realise you’re reading it in just such a book.
But Guy doesn’t try to be cute about it. He’s working at a deeper level.
A child’s rhyme becomes a “vocal imitation of the deepening labyrinth”.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is shown to take place in an actual maze.
“The [Russian] painter Tchelitchew later took to concealing Minotaurs,”
Guy writes, and made “a ‘Riddle of Daedalus’, an anatomical drawing
Of the nasal labyrinth where we breathe…” Guy hunted these things.
He is the man who noticed that “in all of Balthus” one finds no clocks.
I miss him very much. I miss the human being not just the great writer.
I remember how he used to sign off of telephone calls, “BLESS youuu.”
How he wept when he learned that my first daughter had been born.
How he quoted Kipling right before he died, just like my grandfather.
How he got me to smuggle him Marlboros, and I felt guilty afterward.
I remember that we were together on 9/11, watching the TV footage,
And how he didn’t try to say anything smart about it. He just grieved.
I remember the mole on his face and expressiveness of his eyebrows.
How his sister drove from South Carolina to Lexington for his funeral
And looked so much like him that people said it must be Guy in drag.
I remember how angry he’d get if I went for too long without calling.
Reading his work is a way of communing or communicating with him.
Welcome into the labyrinth of Davenport’s learning and imagination.
It is a unique one, in that you never get out but are happier for the fact.