“There is no more steely barb than that of the Infinite."
– Charles Baudelaire
On Sunday, April 16, 2000 at 6:30 pm, at The Blue Bar, 501 Broadway, San Francisco, Donald Sidney-Fryer gave a reading of Clark Ashton Smith’s masterwork of poetry, “The Hashish Eater" along with works of his own. The show was part of Laughing Squid’s Tentacle Sessions, a series of monthly salons featuring various artists, performers, or writers in solo presentations. (For more information, visit their website at www.laughingsquid.com/sessions.)
After a soothing set of solo harp music performed by Cheryl Ann Fulton, Don Herron introduced Donald Sidney-Fryer by means of a story. (A known teller of tales, Don Herron had regaled an audience at another Tentacle Session on 11/17/99.) Herron had visited Sidney-Fryer at his attic apartment in Sacramento. The latter’s cat had loosened a board near the desk, revealing a crawlspace behind the low knee wall. Exploring the hidden compartment under the rafters on hand and knee, the two Dons found all sorts of candles and quasi-religious paraphernalia that made them wonder what sort of frightful rituals had been performed there... Herron said it was the creepiest thing he has experienced -- even creepier than the time he was stuck in an elevator with a severed human leg! As it turned out, the apartment had previously been occupied by one Lynnette “Squeaky" Fromme -- who, of course, made an assassination attempt on President Ford’s life in Sacramento in 1975. The FBI had overlooked the creepy crawlspace when investigating Fromme, who had evidently observed some unspeakable rites there – possibly with other members of Charles Manson’s “family”…
Then Herron dramatically produced a postcard from Providence and read the now-famous lines written in 1922 by H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith praising Ebony and Crystal and calling Smith’s “Hashish Eater" “the greatest imaginative orgy in English literature."
Cloaked in a iridescent cape and bearing himself with all the majesty of an Atlantean priest, Donald Sidney-Fryer ascended the small stage. First he recited a poem of his own “to test the microphone:" “Our Lady of the Unicorn" — a poem from his Songs and Sonnets Atlantean: The Second Series that describes a mediaeval tapestry. A fitting fanfare from the Last of the Courtly Poets, and one that set the tone of what was to follow.
Next he launched into “The Hashish Eater; Or, The Apocalypse of Evil," the 576-line hallucinatory epic in blank verse widely regarded as Smith’s crowning poetical achievement. The opening lines encapsulate the cosmic bombast and bear repeating:
Bow down: I am the Emperor of Dreams;
I crown me with the million-colored sun
Of secret worlds incredible and take
Their trailing skies for vestment when I soar,
Throned on the mounting zenith, and illume
The spaceward-flown horizon infinite.
Don read from a long, hand-written scroll that unrolled and coiled about his feet. (Incongruously, it was a roll of continuous-feed computer paper!) He paused between each of the poem’s ten sections and stepped slightly aside to take a well-deserved sip of a dark cocktail rumored to be a Manhattan (he was recovering from a cold). Somehow, in retrospect, the pauses seemed to emphasize the human element — and finitude — and joined reader and listener alike in the poem’s powerful grip. Even as the poem came to life on his lips, it was as if Don as well as the audience depended on It — and yet, It had to wait for the allotted time to pass just as we did. Cosmic tableau followed cosmic tableau, unseen visions were seen by the mind’s eye, and the rhythmic flow of unworldly words washed the brain in measured doses. The better part of an hour passed in this ceremonious fashion, this delirious parade, before the haunting final image arose and the haunting final words were spoken:
It grows and grows, a huge white eyeless Face,
That fills the void and fills the universe,
And bloats against the limits of the world
With lips of flame that open…
The audience was so enthralled that even those who knew it was finished took a moment to applaud — for how to applaud in the face (ahem!) of such an empyrean apocalypse?
After a brief intermission (in which he dispensed with the outré garb), Don returned to recite a number of sonnets by Parnassian poet José-Maria de Heredia (1842-1905), both in the original French and in Sidney-Fryer’s own unrhymed translations. These included “Oblivion," “Pan," and “On a Ruined Bust of Marble" from Les Trophées (1893). He also recited a few poems of his own, including “An Enchantress Out of Time" (also from The Second Series). Finally, he recited in French and English the lesser-known but potent poem “Beauty" by Baudelaire, which ends with a remarkable line to the effect of “I see with the eyes of Forever!" (In French, “Éternité"). (An interesting compliment to Smith’s eyeless face of Infinity!)
During a brief question-and-answer session, Don recounted how he had visited Smith’s native Auburn in the late 1950s and finally tracked Smith down in Pacific Grove, where he stayed twice with Smith and wife Carolyn in the summers of 1958 and 1959. He fielded a few other questions of interest, but one could only have hoped for a longer session with more dialog and more recitals of Don’s own work.
The Three Goatees. Donald Sidney-Fryer greets two admirers following his performance at The Blue Bar in San Francisco on April 16, 2000. (Left-to-right: Alan Gullette, Keith Allen Daniels, Donald Sidney-Fryer) . Photo by Toni Luna Montealegre Daniels.