Researching in the archives is a slow, often labor-intensive process, but one that rarely leaves me disappointed. Each rare book or box of documents is a world waiting to be explored; sometimes you will find something once thought to be lost, sometimes you will find documents that either confirm or contradict previously held notions about a particular figure, and sometimes, on rare occasions, you will run across something completely unexpected and wonderful.
The Richter Library Special Collections at the University of Miami houses a small collection of documents from former English Professor Clark Mixon Emery (1939-1981). Emery is regarded for his books Ideas Into Action: A Study of Pound’s Cantos (1958) and The World of Dylan Thomas (1971). In preparation for Ideas Into Action, Emery exchanged many letters with Ezra Pound (1885-1972), one of the most influential poets and promoters of literature of the early 20th century. Pound was incarcerated for treason in St. Elizabeth’s Psychiatric Hospital in Washington D.C. at the time he and Emery were corresponding. This correspondence and Emery’s entire collection of Pound memorabilia comprise the bulk of the Clark Mixon Emery Papers. Emery’s literary relationship with Pound was my primary reason for exploring this collection, and the material contained in the boxes is fascinating. Of the five boxes of material, however, it is what I found in Box 4 that surprised me the most and sent me on a literary exploration of the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, Laos, and the Miami literary scene of the early 1980s. Box 4 provides small pieces and clues about the life of a Miami poet, his struggles for a personal poetic renaissance, and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his tragic death in 1982.
Ronald Perry was born in Miami in 1932 and died in 1982. He received his MA from the University of Miami in 1954, spent several years in the US Army, and settled into Miami civilian life as an airline reservation agent. This job allowed him the freedom to both write poetry and to travel extensively, and he lived for periods in Miami, Laos, and the Bahamas. Between 1956 and 1962 Perry published three short pamphlets of poems and one full-length collection entitled Rock Harbor (1959). His poems reflect his life in Miami and the Florida Keys as well as in the Bahamas and Laos. Eighteen years would pass before Perry was ready to write another collection, which he called Denizens and which was published in 1980. Denizens marked a new era of production for Perry, and over the next two years, he would reveal enough new poetry to fill two new collections, neither of which would ever see publication. Information about Perry is difficult to find, and what little I was able to uncover in comes from the material in Box 4, Dana Gioia’s Letter to the Bahamas (1983), and from personal interviews with people who either knew Perry or shared mutual friends. Even armed with some background information, I was left with more questions than answers.
Box 4 begins with a typed letter from Perry to Clark Emery in 1981. This letter expresses immense gratitude and kindness toward Emery, and in it he promises to send Emery the manuscript for his new poetry collection, In The Smoke, which he had just sent to Random House publishers.
The manuscript arrived shortly after with another letter expressing gratitude and humbly forgiving Emery in advance should he not want to read the poems. In just these two letters, I began to see Perry as a man both genuinely kind, infinitely generous, and who greatly appreciated anyone willing to talk about his poetry. Between this letter and the time of his death, Perry sent Emery several typed individual poems and a second brand-new collection entitled Stonecraft. The material contained in the poems and collections reflect a poet with a renewed sense of purpose and who was at the most productive period in his literary life. He returns to a familiar theme of poems written about Laos with ten new poems containing vibrant imagery and a deep reverence for the people and the place that took him in. Passages like the following are typical of the style and power of his verse:
The journey was inside us
The sun overcame us with herons
With jackfruit mangoes and citrons
Until we moved on
And deep as down is
The road unwound like silk before us
Entangled in spiders’ webs
Lost in perfumes at every little wind
(from “The Song of Setaphon”)
Perry died in July 1982 while in Nassau, and reports claim that he died of a heart attack while writing a poem, still unfinished in his typewriter. A short letter from a mutual friend, however, cast a shadow over this romantic, yet tragic end.
Maggie Donovan DuPriest was a central figure in the Miami literary scene and had connections to UM. She was once married to the late UM Professor Laurence Donovan, and she owned The Old Book Shop on South Dixie Highway for many years. She was a friend of both Perry and Emery. Some time after Perry’s death, DuPriest sent Emery a short, undated letter typed on both sides of a small sheet of 4×5-inch stationery. In the letter she frankly discusses the reality of Perry’s final days. Contradicting the official memorial notice, she writes, “The real errors are the hidden ones where he [the author of the memorial] talks of Ronald’s euphoric attitude towards the end. Those of us who saw Ronald shortly before that end knew that this was far from the case.” DuPriest suggests that, despite the tremendous amount of writing he was doing, he was depressed in part by the fact that Random House had rejected the new collection In The Smoke. Most surprisingly, however, is what she writes next: “The major ‘error’ is the never-to-be revealed one of Ronald’s death. Without going into all the ramifications, it was almost certainly suicide. The half-finished poem in the typewriter is a pure fiction. It is a beautiful, romantic presentation.” Her assertions that he was depressed and had taken his own life cast a tragic and contradictory shadow over the effusively kind letters he had sent to Emery just a few months earlier.
Much more research will be necessary in order to resolve these contradictions, and Perry’s two unpublished collections of poetry, In The Smoke and Stonecraft are practically screaming to be studied in detail. My research plans, however, are taking me in another direction, so these mysteries will have to be solved by someone better qualified to study Miami literary history, poetry of the Caribbean, or the poetry of the American experience in Asia. Perry’s work crosses many genres and national literatures, and his kindness still echoes through the archives among those who were lucky enough to have met him or to those, like me, who were lucky enough to stumble across his poems while searching Special Collections for something else entirely.
Barry Devine received his MA in 2009 from University College Dublin in Anglo-Irish literature and drama. His areas of concentration are manuscript genetics and creative development of James Joyce’s Ulysses, transatlantic modernism, and twentieth-century Irish literature. Barry is the co-student organizer of the 2013 “Miami J’yce” conference. In 2011-12, he served as assistant editor for The James Joyce Literary Supplement; he will be managing editor in 2012-13. In March 2012, he presented “James Joyce and Popular Culture: The Genesis of ‘Hades’” at the American Conference for Irish Studies (ACIS) in New Orleans, LA.