Laws of Rest was conceived as an elegy of sorts for my friend Jordan Berlant, who died of cancer in 2002, at the age of 31. Soon after his death, I began writing these poems.
I moved to New York, in the mid-1990s, because my friend Michael suggested I could crash on the futon in his apartment for a couple of weeks while I looked for a job and a place of my own. The first evening, as I sat awkwardly on said futon—a lumpy, rickety aluminum contraption which may or may not, like so much else in the apartment, have been reclaimed from a West Village curb—waiting for Michael’s roommate Jordan to return from his bartending job, I noticed a number of pages tacked up on the living room walls. Each contained a one-act play featuring Michael and Jordan in a number of agonistic situations—as samurai warriors, puppets, martians. Each ended with the same stage direction: “The stage erupts in flames. All is consumed.” I wondered whether other New York futons might be available.
Jordan turned out to be a strapping, gorgeous fellow with kind, striking blue eyes upon which my female friends never tired of remarking. Luckily, he was also endearingly dorky—his favourite article of clothing, for example, was a pair of striped pants that bloused out like a clown’s, and that, much later, his wife waged a years-long struggle to excise from their closet. This silliness made him seem a bit less like a god to the rest of us. He exuded an effortless charisma and authority, not because he expected people to do things for him but because his natural generosity encouraged us to do so. He held tightly to his friends, who in some cases had known him from his childhood in the fog-caught hills of Marin County, California. I felt grateful to become one of the gang.
And it was quite a gang. In addition to his other qualities, Jordan was a talented singer, musician, writer, and actor. His friends were idealistic artist-types, determined to carve out cultural spaces in the rapidly changing environment of fin-de-siècle New York. Jordan and Michael’s apartment had become the de facto gathering place of these bohemians, and in the process had earned itself a moniker: the Tiny Happy. The origin of the first part of the name was immediately apparent—the two-bedroom apartment was so small that if something dripped down from the hole in the ceiling above the shower, you could jump from there across the common room to one of the huddled bedrooms in about five frantic steps. But every so often, when Michael and Jordan hosted their salon-like evenings and packed their friends like capers into the common room, the happiness of creating art for its own sake took over. I remember reading my poetry at one or two of these events—everybody was expected to perform something, and spontaneous collaborations often arose. Jordan was always center-stage, urging everyone on by playing his punk rock songs on acoustic guitar. By the time I arrived, though, these evenings were on the wane—the anxiety of making a living had begun to seep into the group’s post-university euphoria.
For a time, it seemed as if Jordan was going to break out—he and his band produced a couple of hard-driving albums, and got as far as a demo session with Sony Records, which the Tiny Happy crowd enthusiastically attended. But it didn’t pan out, and he ultimately went and got a “real job.” After his diagnosis, though, he returned to music in earnest, and recorded his only solo album. It remains available thanks to ECR Music Group, a now-thriving independent label founded by Blake Morgan, a member of the Tiny Happy cohort who produced and played on the album. It’s called Born to Be Revealed, and it’s still one of my favourite recordings. Its wide range of styles, emotions, and experiences influenced countless aspects of my book. I’ve borrowed quotes and images from it (dragonflies, Paris cafés), but more importantly, a general sensibility. I’ve tried in some of the poems to capture Jordan’s mixture of humour, pathos, and the grateful pleasure of just being alive.
After Jordan’s death, I think many members of the group felt a special charge to honour him by bringing art into the world however they could. And the number of active artists that came out of the group astonishes me—theater impressarios, directors, actors, and playwrights; film directors, singers, painters, sculptors, musicians, writers. Many of us have found a sustainable and nourishing place in the world of art, something Jordan was ultimately unable to do. I feel that we’ve done so on his behalf.
David B. Goldstein is a professor at York University and the author of Laws of Rest, his debut collection of poetry. The collection is an exploration of the prose sonnet, and also happens to be on sale right now–buy it from the BookThug website before January 2, 2014, and receive 30% off the list price.
Read more about David in his Author Profile.