A Ray in the Shadows
From a poem written by Charles Plymell, as his friend Ray Bremser laid dying of cancer in a Utica, New York hospital.
Bremser was born in 1934 in Jersey City, New Jersey. While still a teenager he joined the United States Air Force but was soon discharged for going AWOL. By 18 he was in jail at the Bordentown Reformatory serving a six year sentence for armed robbery. While in jail he wrote poetry and corresponded with Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Corso himself had learned to write poetry while serving time in prison.
By the time Bremser was released from Bordentown in 1958 he was a man in his mid-twenties and the Beat Generation was fast becoming a cultural phenomenon. Kerouac's On The Road had been published in October 1957. When Life Magazine published Paul O'Neil's anti-Beat article "The Only Rebellion Around" in November 1959, Bremser had married Bonnie Fraser, a young high school graduate from Washington, D.C. As the 1950s turned into the 1960s Bremser was getting busted on a narcotics charge. While on parole he and Bonnie had a daughter, Rachel, and soon the trio made tracks for Mexico. In Mexico Bremser and his family led a distinctly beat life that included Ray pimping for Bonnie so there would be enough money for food and drugs. Eventually Bonnie left Ray in Mexico and put their daughter up for adoption at the border.
Two important characteristics of the Beat Generation ethos or aesthetic are found firmly developed in Ray Bremser: The rejection of middle-class values and the embracing of an underworld morality which idealized the criminal as an anti-cultural hero. Kerouac had been jailed in connection with Lucien's Carr killing of David Kammerer; Burroughs had been in custody in Mexico after accidentally shooting his wife to death; Corso spent time in jail where like Bremser he started writing poetry. Bremser fell easily into this "outlaw" vortex of the Beats.
But Bremser is not one of the better known members of the Beat Generation. One example of his work appears in the Portable Beat Reader. An internet search on his name yields about 70 "hits" most of which refer to a site that contain some photographs but no examples of his poetry. Levi Asher's Literary Kicks Beat-related website lists Bremser on the "Latter-Day Beats" page but there is no link to further information. His name does not appear in the otherwise detailed " Beat Bibliography"by Sherri. Nor is Bremser's name to be found in Larry Smith's "Cultural Chronology of Early Beat Literature." Michael Hayward's "Unspeakable Visions" article doesn't mention Bremser either. His name does crop up in the Donald Allen Collection at the University of California in San Diego and Richard Meltzer includes Bremser in his "Another Superficial Piece About 176 Beatnik Books." Al Aronowitz, also known as the Blacklisted Journalist mentions Bremser a couple of times in his online "Beat Papers." Aside from the Ginsberg connection, Bremser's most notable mention comes from Bob Dylan when in the liner notes to Highway 61 Revisited ("11 Outlined Epitaphs") the words "an' jail songs of Ray Bremser" appear just after the words "love songs of Allen Ginsberg."
It's difficult to know for sure what Ray Bremser's eyes were screaming about just before he died. But perhaps there is a clue. In one of his last public appearances at the Cherry Valley Festival in August 1998 just a few months before he died someone asked Bremser about his children and whether there were yet any grandchildren. He replied "Don't know...don't wanna know...don't want to bring any more pain to any others." Like most Beats, Bremser was not first and foremost a family man.
And yet the joy and power of Bremser's poetry, informed by his fidelity to nonconformity, remains for us and hopefully for his unknown grandchildren.
in Cherry Valley, 8/7--8/9/98
robbed some banks did time
a poet who dug out
with words made tools
instruments he used to
play his own kind of jazz
they say they say
three months before he died
barely fleshed skeleton
i met in Cherry Valley
voice cutting thru late summer green
w/gravely sand rocks
hurt to listen...
i didn't see nobody did
a man clinging to a cliff
behind his dark glasses & cowboy hat
cut up bloody spitting out
non-stop SOS all weekend
we unwittingly answered
Books of Poetry
A Bremser Anecdote
from Down and In: Life in the Underground (1988) by Ronald Sukenick
Photo by Betsy Kirschbaum
© 1998 by Water Row Books
Ray Bremser- 1999 Cosmic Player Plate|
Published: February 3, 1999
Copyright © 1999 by the Cosmic Baseball Association