Ammiel Alcalay Remembers Jack Hirschman (1933-2021)

News of Jack Hirschman’s death on August 22nd simply knocked the wind out of me. Despite his age, it came without premonition, and felt unexpected and jarring. When mutual friend David Meltzer passed in 2016 I dreamt about him, only to wake up to the news. Jack had collaborated closely on David’s magazine, TREE, the harbinger for a radical Jewish poetics that found sources not only in the kabbalah but in a politics grounded in the generative and generous light of interpretation.

I remember well Jack’s own version of Tai Chi, consisting of going through the motions of pitching a baseball in slow motion. That he often did that at Specs, the great North Beach bar, and with a drink, was beside the point, or maybe to the point. Given Jack’s total detachment from the world of branding, the late Ben Hollander and I once gave Jack a most uncharacteristic gift: a Koji Uehara T-shirt, to celebrate a pitcher whose manner and style he had fallen head over heals for.

Though I never remember jokes, the one Jack told me about the talking dog who once worked for the CIA remains unforgettable. After taking me out to dinner once in Chinatown, he pulled me into Kerouac Alley and, in that inimitable Bronx baritone, said: “AH-meee-el, I got two new jokes.” And he proceeded, with perfect timing.

When I invited him to CUNY, sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s, he said it was the first invite he’d gotten to an American university since the 1960s, when he was fired from his teaching position at the University of California for “activities against the state” that included writing, speaking out and demonstrating against the war in South East Asia, as well as giving an A to all his students, to fend off the draft. And Jack had a bona-fide PhD, not like so many poets that found their way into the academy in the 1980s and beyond. I remember vividly his stories about waiting outside Patchin Place in Greenwich Village to try and catch the reclusive Djuna Barnes, one of the subjects of his research.

Cub reporter in the Bronx at the age of 15, student at City College in the early 1950s, member of the Roque Dalton Cultural Brigade (along with Alejandro Murguía, Juan Felipe Herrera, and others), Poet Laureate of San Francisco—Jack’s life in poetry is dense and rich and real. The range of truly explosive books he translated is extraordinary: the ones I always hold close are the Haitian poet René Depestre’s A Rainbow for the Christian West, the Algerian Ismail Aït Jaffar’s Wail of the Arab Beggars of the Casbah, and the Greek Katerina Gogou’s Three Clicks Left, not to mention his versions of Mallarmé. I have piles of poems and broadsides and books that he gave or sent me, letters, e-mails, copies of his correspondence to Charles Olson, to Vincent Ferrini, to Meltzer, and others. In some cases, I even found texts in archives that Jack didn’t have a copy of!

Our interwoven strands are dense with love, sympathy and experience and, like all those he touched, I will miss him tremendously. We send our profound condolences to his wife, Agneta Falk, and daughter Celia Hirschman, as well as extended family and friends.
In preparing for a tribute to Diane di Prima, I found a poem Diane had written in 2013, for Jack’s 80th birthday, which ends like this:

            Jack leaving many messages to call him
            Jack insisting I call him right away, then turning his phone off
            Jack Hirschman never answering his cell phone
            Jack telling me to text him, my phone doesn’t text
            Jack demanding I text him—I don’t know how

            Jack sure I’ll feel better, if I just drink some vodka
            Jack telling me give up dentists, and “grow a moustache, it’s cheaper”

            Jack Hirschman at 80, looking 12
            Jack looking wise, either 12, or a very wise infant

            Jack passionate & careful
            Jack tender & cruel

            Jack Hirschman making the world a better place
            whether it likes it or not

And in a group correspondence, devorah major, another San Francisco Poet Laureate and an old friend of Jack’s, sent out a fierce and beautiful poem, an “Arcane for Jack Hirschman,” taking up the name Jack gave to his ongoing series of poems, The Arcanes, collected in three massive volumes, which begins like this:

            on the day Jack died
            there were words

            furious fated fecund failing words
            poured from the poets

            because they knew what Jack would do
            on such solemn occasions

            he would write into the sunset
            slit open the dawn
            write through the heat of the afternoon

            as the moon secreted itself behind thick clouds
            inside the starless night
            he would write

            he would hold a person in his heart and
            embody their fulsome laugh
            their once powerful stride
            the rolling rhythms of their verse
            the insistent uprisings in their soul

            so they wrote their poems
            and riots grew from syllables and the
            deepest of sadness wrung inside the death

            personal and pervasive the poems
            rocked and swam through salty tears

                                                                                                            Ammiel Alcalay
                                                                                                            August 24, 2021
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2 Responses

  1. ken says:

    great poem!

  2. Frank McGuire says:

    Twenty yrs back I slipped into a small cafe reading, maybe 4 poets. Hirshman’s stuff had me transfixed. His depiction of the “Hipster”had me cracking up, hilarious..

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