Letters to Goya

Poems, Titles and Letters to the Dead

By: James Magee

Internationally acclaimed artist James Magee (alleged doppelganger of equally acclaimed artist Annabel Livermore) reinvents himself one more time as poet.

Categories: Adult | All Books | Fiction | Poetry


Internationally acclaimed artist James Magee reinvents himself one more time as poet.

“This book presents two bodies of writing by James Magee. The first is “Letters to Goya,” a collection of twenty-three typo-filled letters written on a manual typewriter from the Waikiki Trailer Park in Sweetwater, Texas. Turning the book around, you will find a second collection, a selected compilation of titles from Jim’s artwork, representing decades of both writing and performance by the artist and his multiple selves. Reading this book is not unlike the act of trying to understand Jim’s life. It requires twisting, turning, reorienting. You can enter at any point and find the story changing and growing as Jim plays conductor to a symphony of voices familiar and strange.”
—from the Middleword by Kerry Doyle

About James Magee

In 1980, the incredibly prolific American artist (and now published poet) James Magee rooted himself in El Paso and Juarez on the U.S. Mexico Border. Michigan-born, Ivy League-educated to be a lawyer, gender-fluid, ex-taxi driver and oil field roughneck, Magee made his home on the border because he had work to do, big work, big visionary work, and the frontera was a place to be alone to do that work, away from all the jingle-jangle of the NYC arts scene. Besides, he could cross the border and hang in the gay and transgender bars, he could live any life he wanted to live, and he could be the artist (or artists) he wanted to be. The place radiated renegade freedom. And it was a cheap place to be an artist.

Magee bought 2,000 acres in the desert wilderness east of El Paso and began creating The Hill, a massive stonework on the scale of Stonehenge, his on-going opus of the last four decades. He also created large metal collages, ornately framed, which he "titled" with remarkable poems.

And then the artist Annabel Livermore (a retired Mid-Western librarian) sprang from Magee's imagination like Athena sprang from the mind of Zeus. Annabel was not to be alone. Horace Mayfield, a gay artist, likewise sprang fully formed from the same imagination. Annabel lives in one house, Horace lives in another, and Magee migrates between the two. (Mayfield's house, it should be noted, is outfitted for wheel-chair access because along the way Magee lost both legs to disease. It didn't slow him down, thanks to prosthetics and incredible determination.)

The sculptures and paintings of James Magee and Annabel Livermore (and more recently, Horace Mayfield) have been presented in major exhibitions across the United States, Mexico and Europe. Magee's The Hill is quickly becoming an art aficionado's destination, except visits are rare and managed by The Cornudas Foundation. The Smithsonian recently acquired Magee's archives. All the while, James Magee traveled the country, performing his "Titles" (aka, poems) in collaboration with contemporary classical and experimental musicians, like cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, formerly of the Kronus Quartet


3 reviews for Letters to Goya

  1. Beth Henley, Pulitzer-winning playwright, screenwriter and actress
    “James Magee’s Letters to Goya journeys through a profound, absurd, hilarious, pornographic landscape of life and death. The poems and letters cross time and space, veering backwards and forward, inward and outward, evoking mystic illumination. A mind-warp. A miracle. A gift.”

  2. New York Journal of Books
    “This collection is an adventure in itself…Magee impresses with his concrete imagery, lyrical counterpoint, and subtle internal rhyme schemes.”

    James Magee is renowned for his remote architectural sculpture, most famously “The Hill,” which he has been creating for 40 years or so on 2000 acres of land he owns outside of El Paso, Texas. It has been likened to a contemporary Stonehenge in its imposing, cryptic presence. Magee began as a New York street poet who emerged in the 70s, became a librettist for operas, and collaborated with such virtuosic chamber ensembles as the Kronos Quartet.
    His obscurity as a street poet is probably going to remain the case even with the publication of Letters to Goya: Poems, Titles, and Letters to the Dead. His verse is abstract and as inaccessible in many ways as his desert sculptures would be to one of his original fans on the piers off of Christopher Street circa 1977, where Magee would read his poetry to the gay men there to have sex on the desiccated docks.
    This collection is an adventure in itself since it can be read backward and forward, at one end the poems or “Titles” as Magee calls them, and flipping the book over are Letters to Goya.
    The first Title is a scene de action in on one of those piers is a distinctly forensic account of a gay male orgy, which concludes with the lines “Without exaggeration or risk of castigation a 40-foot square room/holding 127 audacious males would produce in a 24-hour period 20–50 gallon drums of passion.”
    There is no escaping the fact that this book is obsessive in its themes and scenarios, but Magee impresses with his concrete imagery, lyrical counterpoint, and subtle internal rhyme schemes. Magee not only is the enigmatic observer, but he also morphs into many characters or ‘anima personae’ as it is explained in the forward by a real or invented editor.
    Consider this hallucinogenic imagery: “Today is paradise overcast . . .” the opening image of a phantasmagoric landscape of “wafers of time/gathering together from within the beginning/four or five thousand years across/lost at odd angles to one another . . .”
    From that epic symbolism, Magee contemplates the “and there beneath a sky drained of laughter, void of pity, you sit my Louie, on your tractor forever smiling/your deranged motor running, soon to sow another row of ditties,/your mother’s songs about what went wrong with her children’s children/. . . you begin to sing. You begin to pray./But I’m not ready . . . I’m never ready.”
    Much of Magee’s imagery of harsh American terrain is both illusory and startling in its intimacy.
    “I remember you standing on the dock in the breeze, David/white clouds behind you/your blue and yellow shirt billowing/and how you peered uneasily into my camera.”
    Are there further clues to Magee’s life from “Keeping Peace with the Greater Army of fathers and sons . . ./“I know I’m not the son you wanted Dad . . . I insisted on poetry/In honor your plainspoken decency Dad/and with words we once both feared,/I will fashion for you a mantra/disguised as a clothesline/repeating your name/every morning before breakfast/and again at night/until the end of my days,/or until you come home.”
    Flipping the book over to those Letters to Goya, the contents of which are ostensibly found objects by Magee and chronicled on an old manual typewriter, complete with typos, XXXXouts, and keystrokes that don’t exist anymore along with the enigmatic daily letters by The Duchess, which are mind-numbingly mundane until they are not. Is the Duchess insane, schizophrenic, or another poetic mirage by Magee? She lives in Waikiki Trailer Park, Sweetwater, Texas, in 1955, in time traveling exile from her imagined lover from another century, Spanish court painter Francisco Jose de Goya, and rails against his wife, in between talking about baseball teams scores, her nutty neighbors and sales in the Sears catalog.
    Is this provocative surrealism, literary satire or ruse from a major American artist to trying to confound? Magee’s is an idiosyncratic voice, to say the least, and better not to try to completely decode. It just is.
    Magee’s poems may remain in literary obscurity and as inaccessible as they can first seem, they draw you in, bit by bit, as the various characters and snapshot scenarios appear and vanish, enigmatic and unresolved. Yes, there are so many extra pieces to this poetic puzzle. However abstract, Magee has stated that many of his Titles eventually mounted as annotations of his visual art. Maybe a visit to The Hill would reveal Magee’s secrets . . . or likely add to them.”—Lew J. Whittington Visit Website

  3. Lone Star Literary Life
    [The book] spans several centuries, geographical spaces, and voices…Each turn of the page is a new vision, a new letter, a new voice, a new love note, crumpled and thrown out, picked up, and reimagined. Time and space are confused, and the physical realities of the pages are confronted with our imagination. —Francois Pointeau

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