Robert J. Bertholf (1940-2016)

Robert J. Bertholf died February 19 at his home in Austin, Texas. I’ve been thinking about him daily since, and trying to understand the sudden silence after so many years of close contact and correspondence. He studied a generation of poets who have always been important to me—Robert Duncan, Ted Enslin, Robert Graves, and many others. He delighted in the lives and works of poets like Robert Creeley, Edward Dorn, Susan Howe, and Wallace Stevens, and related the particular realities of a life spent in the study of poetry as he experienced it with tremendous charm and insight. His eyes were bright, sparking with excitement. I miss his mercurial wit and laughter.

I met Robert years ago at SUNY Buffalo around the time he was leaving his position there as curator of the Poetry Collection, an impressive archive of 20th-century writing that includes documents by James Joyce and many others. He and his wife Anne Bertholf moved to Austin, Texas, where I was in graduate school at the University of Texas, and we quickly became good friends. Robert and Anne attended poetry readings we hosted, supported a number of local presses, and provided me important insights and direction as I completed my dissertation.

Usually I met Robert for lunch several times a month, always somewhere wonderful. In later years we’d order the Lomito beef sandwich at our favorite lunch bar, Buenos Aires, in East Austin, and always with two large pinot grigios. Or Robert and Anne would host dinner parties where tequila and wine flowed. Robert made a lovely paella once when I visited with Hoa Nguyen. Anne shared a guest book with notes and drawings by the many poets who traveled through their home at one time or another. Jess collages and art by Duncan, Virginia Admiral, R. H. Quaytman, and others announced a particular affinity for work by artists with close attachments to poets, and several pieces traveled to California, New York, and Washington, D. C. in an exhibit two years ago, “An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and their Circle.”

When I graduated with my PhD from UT-Austin, Robert presented me with Edward Dorn’s cowboy hat, the black Stetson that appears in the photo of Ed on the back of the Wingbow Press edition of Slinger. He and Anne would sometimes escape the hot Texas summer to live in Buffalo, and when we moved to Toronto, they met Hoa and the boys at the train station, put them up in a hotel, took them out to dinner, and embraced the difficulties and delicacies of cross-country travel with small children. Next day, Robert rented a van and drove Hoa and the boys up to Toronto where I met them. I was grateful to him and Anne for their generosity, their open-heartedness. Always.

When I was leaving Austin in summer 2011, Robert dropped off a large cardboard box of manuscripts and told me to look at them when I had some time after settling into my job at Ryerson University. When I finally opened the box I discovered the correspondence of Robert Duncan and Charles Olson along with the transcriptions of a series of lectures Duncan gave on Olson over a twenty-year period. We determined to work on finalizing the material. There were delays on both our sides, though mine probably were the most pressing as I struggled to meet the requirements of the university’s tenure system while negotiating my particular academic and creative needs. We worked in earnest for several years, updating notes, organizing glossaries, proofing delicate moments in the manuscripts, and finally writing introductions to what will finally be published in two volumes: An Open Map: The Robert Duncan / Charles Olson Correspondence and Imagining Persons: Robert Duncan on Charles Olson. Both are projected to appear fall 2017 with the University of New Mexico Press’s Recencies Series: Research and Recovery in Twentieth-Century American Poetics. I only wish Robert would be able to see the final publication of these works, though I know he was delighted to see the texts enter the final stages of the review process.

I never imagined myself as a textual scholar, so the process of editing these collections over the last several years has been a true learning experience. I owe a debt of gratitude to Robert for his insight and knowledge of the immense range of material contained in the manuscripts. More than anything else, though, I miss his company in the high adventure of poetry. He reminded me how much of what we do in submission to the demands of this wild art is always for pleasure and always for the excitement discovered in the words we share.