"The Winter Diary" is the autobiography of t. kilgore splake, perhaps Michigan's most celebrated poet/ photographer/ filmmaker, who's been carving out a significant reputation for himself in the small press, as well as a voice that could belong to no one else poetically, for twenty years or more--ever since, as this book reveals, he put down the .357 Magnum he was planning to use to blow his own brains out after a long and unsatisfying academic career teaching at American colleges, took early retirement and disappeared "up country" (as the song says) to find his true self and fulfil his dreams.
"Diary" tells you how he got to the momento de verdad with the Magnum--that teaching career chasing "the bitch goddess of success", a string of relationships that ended in disappointment, pain, craziness--in a series of flashbacks provoked by present day associations as splake pursues his well-documented days in Calumet drinking coffee at various cafes, flirting with the waitresses, hiking up his beloved cliffs; it delves far back into his childhood and early years to relate how the character was formed which made the grievous errors, but also gave him the vision and the courage to put it all down and reinvent himself as a poet. So it's a picture of the nation too across much of the last century, given that he also supposes about the lives of his parents; but its real value is just as a fabulous story told by a man rich in experience and made wise by love and by too many close encounters with grief and death. splake has always seemed to be running as fast as he can from what he himself has labelled "rat bastard time", but it's his knowledge of time's ravages which gives him his incredible drive and commitment to his poetical vision. "That which does not kill us will make us stronger," as someone else said. If we all knew how soon Death comes we'd fucking hurry up.
At the end of the book splake documents some of the discussions he had with other writers and poets about the form the book should take, whether his customary lower case would be appropriate, whether a formal structure (as opposed to the near stream of consciousness style he adopted--reading it reminded me of talks you might hear on the radio) would have made it more atttractive to a conventional publisher, whether the descriptions of other people lacked depth of characterisation. To me, none of those things really matters. splake is splake. His subject is himself, which it actually is for most poets; it's just that t. is more honest about it. And conventionally structured and edited autobiographies are dull as dishwater anyway. If you have to compromise your vision to be a success in the literary world you might as well be back teaching political science, or striding about a supermarket in a security guard's uniform, or working in a bank. splake is a long-time correspondent of mine so perhaps I'm biased--and BEATNIK doesn't review stuff I don't like anyway--but for all its eccentricities, in fact partly because of its eccentricities, THE WINTER DIARY is a fine work.
People will be assessing and reassessing and arguing about splake's writings long after the rest of us have been forgotten.