On Joe Brainard’s Birthday

The great artist and writer Joe Brainard was born on March 11, 1942, and would’ve been 72 years old today.  (He passed away in 1994).

A central figure in the New York School’s so-called “second generation,” Brainard was a painter, collagist, and collaborator with many of the poets of the New York School.  He was also the author of the endlessly charming book I Remember.  Last year, the Library of America brought out the terrific and comprehensive collection, The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard.  You can also hear Brainard read from his work at PennSound.

For Brainard’s 40th birthday, his close friend James Schuyler wrote a letter-poem which begins

Dear Joe

I can easily believe that I
am fifty-eight, but that you
are forty fills me won-

and closes:

     My room here in the
Chelsea is bright with art
works by you (a “fake Fairfield
Porter” I especially
love), and though I don’t
see you often I think about
you a lot:
for your birthday I would like
to send you a bunch of lilies
of the valley, which mean,
in the language of flowers,
“I love you since long.”

And here, from I Remember, is Brainard thinking about birthdays, and our frustrating efforts to understand “time”:

   I remember birthday parties.

   I remember pink and brown and white ice cream in layers.

   I remember little silk American flags.  And little bamboo and paper Japanese umbrella that, if you tried to open them all the way up, broke.

   I remember at least once only pretending to make a wish before blowing the candles out.

   I remember how hard it was to get a round of “Happy Birthday” going.

   I remember never going to a birthday party where we played Pin the Tail On the Donkey.

   I remember canned creamed corn.

   I remember Cream of Wheat lumps.

   I remember roast beef and carrots and potatoes and gravy, and, underneath it all, a piece of soggy white bread: the best part.

   I remember, when your beet juice runs into your mashed potatoes — red mashed potatoes!

   I remember looking forward to a certain thing or event that is going to happen, and trying to visualize its actually happening and not understanding “time” one fit.  (Frustrating). Frustrating because, at times, one can almost grab it.  But then you realize it’s too slippery, and just too complicated, and so you lose your footing, totally back to nowhere. (Frustrating). Still believing that a certain sort of understanding is somehow possible, if approached delicately enough, from just the right angle.

   I remember floating transparent spots before my eyes, every now and then, for a moment (microscopic) like when you stand up real fast.

Carte Postale, 1978, mixed media

Carte Postale, 1978, mixed media

I'm Not Really Flying I'm Thinking, 1964, Collaboration with Frank O'Hara

I’m Not Really Flying I’m Thinking, 1964, Collaboration with Frank O’Hara

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