I had intended to cover much more ground this week, guest-blogging on the BAP site, but it’s funny how time slips away. I would have pointed readers to my friend Toby Thompson and the recent re-issue of his classic contribution to Dylanology, Positively Main Street (check it out). Beth Joselow has a new book of poems out called Begin at Once (which my brain constantly wants to call Bring It On! instead), and her work calls out for more attention (more on Beth). The acting career of Karen Allen—friend, old flame, and a Mass Transit alumna—has been revitalized via the new Indiana Jones movie, which would have been fun to cover (some information on Karen). Lynne Dreyer’s name and photo seemed to keep popping up this week, which I took to be a direct message from the Great Unconscious to write about her. Bernie Welt, Diane Ward, Phyllis Rosenzweig (all in the photo below), Ted Greenwald, Rod Smith (click for my review), Tina Darragh, P. Inman, Ray DiPalma, and so many other poets who have been important to me, would all have been excellent subjects for this blog. Not to mention such DC novelist friends of mine as Mary Kay Zuravleff and the queen of Irish-American writing, Alice McDermott.
[in my apartment at 1920 S St. NW in Dupont Circle, ca. 1981. Standing, l. to r.: Tad Wanveer, Diane Ward, Terence Winch, my wife Susan Campbell; sitting, l. to r.: Phyllis Rosenzweig, Bernie Welt, Doug Lang, Becky Levenson]
I started working a full-time office job on April Fool’s Day, 1985, just six months shy of turning 40, after having made my living for many years playing traditional Irish music, teaching, and picking up whatever writing and editing gigs I could find. Now, suddenly, I would be joining the herd, riding the rush-hour subway morning and night, living out my own perpetual Groundhog Day, all of which I contemplated with dread, if not angst. So I established one rule for myself as a way of preserving my creative life: I would always say yes to getting together with other writers, whether for lunch or a drink after work. That rule remains in effect.
Back in those early dark days of gainful employment, the two poets I saw most often for lunch were Ed Cox and Liam Rector, both of whom had been key members of the Mass Transit/Dupont Circle School in the early ’70s. Liam also worked downtown, near me, and Ed, always restless, liked to get out and about.
Ed Cox's personality was an engaging mixture of the soulful and silly. You got his depth as a person immediately. He was a self-made man in every respect—coming from a dirt-poor and dysfunctional family, he made himself into a poet of tremendous expressive power, while at the same time attempting to do good wherever he could (running poetry workshops for the elderly etc.). He was terrible at holding on to money, jobs, apartments, but accomplished at keeping his many friendships in the best of condition.
[Washington Post article from 1973 on Mass Transit, with my first name misspelled]
Championed by Robert Coles and others, Ed won a Lyndhurst Prize in 1989 for something like $100,000 over a three-year period. I remember judiciously advising him to think about buying a condo or doing something with the money that might provide a more permanent benefit. But he got rid of it as fast as he could, which turned out to be just as well. He died of a stroke at age 46 in 1992, taking all of us by surprise. Ed was one of those people who had barely aged; he seemed pretty much the same physically at 46 as he had at 26, only wiser, of course. In a particularly prescient poem, of which there are several versions, Ed seemed almost to predict his fate. Written long before his death, the poem is included in Ed’s posthumous Collected Poems, published by Rick Peabody’s Paycock Press in 2001 (for more on the book click here).
I Want To Tell Them
There is a clot at the back of my head,
I know it. I’ve told them,
more than once, that it is there,
has been present for as long
as I can recall. I noted it the first night.
I told them last night. They just nod
their heads. No one talks directly to me.
All they do is listen, send for a doctor.
She listens, though more attentive,
and leaves. I can feel it each day
when the sky frames the window red;
the setting sun as sure as the words,
all I’ve said. I taste its hues
in my mouth. My tongue is cloud and wind
with the waste of tissue. I know it.
They know it. There is a clot at the back
of my head—stars, rooms that do not appear
on the charts at the far end of my bed.
This month marks the first anniversary of Liam Rector’s death, by his own hand, at age 57 on August 15, 2007. It will be hard for me not to associate August from now on with the terrible news of his passing last summer. I had seen him in New York a few months earlier and had spoken with him on the phone a week or two before he died, and he seemed in great form. He was living out a fantasy, it seemed to me — married to a wonderful woman, living in a terrific apartment in the Village, running the Bennington Writing Seminars, teaching a few courses at the New School and elsewhere, and writing his best work. He had announced to me that he was tired of small press publishing, and wanted his next book to come from a major house, a goal achieved with the publication of The Executive Director of the Fallen World by the University of Chicago Press in 2006 (more on the book). Liam, in his forties, had gone through major heart and cancer surgery, and made no secret of his unwillingness to continue living if his health again worsened. Part of me respects his decision, while I also feel continuing anger and bafflement at what he did.
Lunch with Liam back in the ’80s was a trip. He always insisted on Whitlow’s, a somewhat seedy, inexpensive hamburger joint in downtown DC (at 11 & E St., NW), with a big, green sign out front (it closed years ago and migrated to Virginia, I think). Liam would be eating his burger, drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette, and talking all at once, with his characteristic humor and exuberance. We never worked together or had any other “official” connection—we were friends simply because of our shared love for poetry and music. His behavior was often over the top, outrageous. But he could just as readily be thoughtful, gracious, charming. I remember calling him from work one day, while he was living in the Boston area and undergoing chemotherapy, and at one point asking him what the chemo was like. He said, “Well, all us middle-aged guys sit around in these big Barcalounges for about three hours. Everyone gets his own t.v. monitor, and we all watch porn and jerk off.” I’m not a gullible person, but this was delivered with such medical-report seriousness, I stupidly said, “Really?” “No, you asshole,” he replied, “that’s not what we do.” At lunch, I would sometimes have to grab him to get him to stop talking so that I could get a word in, which anyone who knew Liam will appreciate. He was a very bright, funny, talented man, and a good friend to me, and I continue to miss him (more about Liam).
Home from school at six years old, first grade,
And uncle there to tell me Mommy
Gone, Mommy not be coming back any
Time soon, Liam, Mommy had to go to
Mental hospital. Nervous breakdown.
Years later Mommy, when she goes out
Of mental, often says, “If you’re
A bad boy for me Liam you’re
Going to send me back, back
Into mental hospital, like you did
First time.” At 13
I find out Mom had been doing years
In a federal prison all that time,
For stealing, so no mental hospital for
Mommy. Breakdown ours alone.
I was on my own.