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The Householders: Robert Duncan and Jess

“I'm a householder,” the poet Robert Duncan once explained. “My whole idea of being able to work was to have a household.” In this book, Tara McDowell examines the household (physical and conceptual) that Duncan established with the artist Jess, beginning in 1951 when the two men exchanged marriage vows, and ending with Duncan's death in 1988. For Duncan and Jess, the household―rather than the studio, gallery, or collective―provided the support structure for their art. Indeed, McDowell argues convincingly, their work was coextensive with their household. The material surroundings of their house in San Francisco and the daily rhythms of their domestic lives became part of their creative practice.

Duncan wrote poetry that is romantic, ornate, and obscure; Jess (born Burgess Franklin Collins) created multi-imaged, complex collages and assemblages. McDowell explores their life and work―reading Duncan and Jess with and against each other, in alignment and misalignment. She examines their illustrated book Caesar's Gate, a collaborative effort that led them to reject collaboration; considers each man's lifelong preoccupation with an unfinished project, Jess's Narkissos and Duncan's The H.D. Book; and discusses their “origin myths” and self-made genealogies, describing them as a form of witness in the face of the calamities of the twentieth century.

Duncan and Jess made the household a necessary precondition for their art making. Doing so, they reclaimed and rehabilitated the domestic―from which gay couples were traditionally excluded―for their own uses. The household permitted them to reimagine the world. McDowell's portrait of a couple expands to encompass broader issues, urgent in midcentury America and still resonant today: belonging and kinship, alienation, and catastrophe. Hardcover, 248 pages.

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