Ray Bremser is one of many Beat and Beat-affiliated characters whose life and work remain somewhat understudied. Thankfully, there is a new book (a 24-page chapbook) out from Water Row Books that attempts to shine some much-needed light on Bremser’s poetry.

Ray Bremser: Disciple of Kerouac & Coltrane, by Matz McLaughlin, is “a reappraisal of Bremser’s poetry” in the words of its author. McLaughlin discusses one of Bremser’s first poems, “The Dying of Children,” which strangely enough was found shortly before the poet’s death. No one seems to know how it came to be saved, for Bremser had destroyed the original decades before. The poem is, McLaughlin writes,

nothing short of a small masterpiece. The rhythm and cadences of a mature poet are already in evidence, as one line flows effortlessly into the next. It is a haunting requiem to a child who was snatched away too early, too cruelly, by Death.

This poem was written at some point in the 1950s and published in 1999 but Bremser’s first collection came out in 1965, by which point the Beat Generation had faded into history and been replaced by their tie-dyed offspring, the hippies. Poems of Madness came with an introduction by Allen Ginsberg, who somehow managed to be at the centre of each of those movements.

Although this book is ostensibly about the poems of Ray Bremser, there is a departure from this focus when McLaughlin describes “The Mexico Years” by drawing upon Bonnie Bremser’s (later Frazer) memoirs. This focuses on her efforts to keep herself and her family from poverty.

McLaughlin returns to Poems of Madness and cites Ginsberg as categorising Bremser as a bebop poet like Kerouac, turning some of the concepts of jazz into written poetry. McLaughlin builds upon Ginsberg’s idea by saying that “as any jazz poet’s language should be, Bremser’s lines are very musical,” and then provides various examples from Poems of Madness of Bremser utilising jazz methods in his work. After this, he writes:

To my mind Kerouac and Bremser are the two white beat poets most heavily influenced by jazz. Considering their extensive forays into jazz poetry, one must question why Kerouac and Bremser are often both left out of jazz anthologies.

McLaughlin goes on to discuss musicality in Bremser’s next collections, Angels (1967) and Driver Suite (1968). Poems from the latter are compared with the work of Tom Waits, whom McLaughlin reminds us is “another Kerouac disciple.” He explains:

What is interesting about this collection and about Bremser’s style in particular is his use of spacing on the page. I think this is because Bremser’s poetry is cadenced in a spontaneous, intuitive jazz meter and with the whams! and cymbals! interjected throughout the text, the reader starts to develop a jazz rhythm just from reading these poems. As you read this, you may be able to actually hear the bebop snares and kick drums. How Bremser was able to pull this off on the page is quite impressive. Perhaps he was listening to a jazz record during the composition process.

It is the 1978 publication Blowing Mouth that we learn is Bremser’s “most famous (and perhaps his strongest) collection of poetry.” McLaughlin guides us through the book, explaining the influence of jazz and of Kerouac. There are various fascinating comparisons between Bremser’s work and Kerouac’s, specifically of Mexico City Blues. He notes one of the strengths of Bremser as a poet:

occasionally splitting and joining two different word parts together, demonstrating his immense English vocabulary repertoire, which he deftly draws upon, to weave together a beautiful collection of sounds, with adjacent words playing on the preceding ones with slight consonantal or vowellic variations, flowing freely in a scatological, but musical, pile-up of words.

This brings us around to the final collection, The Conquerors (1998), which, written in Mexico, was “a haunting but scathing lament for a destroyed empire and its culture, the ghost of a culture that now lives on only in the museums and in the spirit of the Mexican fellaheen.”

Finally, McLaughlin rounds off his study of Bremser’s poetry by examining the themes prevalent in his work – police brutality and “the fake values of a decaying capitalist society” – before concluding that “Bremser’s poetry is an amalgamation of the best of several forms: street poetry, lyrical poetry but especially jazz poetry.”

Ray Bremser: Disciple of Kerouac & Coltrane can be ordered through Water Row Books.

Banner photo copyright 1998, 2023 Betsy R. Kirschbaum