Some time around July 15, we lost Tom Weatherly; his heart gave out. His fiancee Linda Murphy hadn’t heard from him in a few days; no one had—where were all his phone calls, emails, posts? People heard from Weatherly. But he was gone, alone, in the big house he’d inherited from his mother near his birthplace of Scottsboro, Alabama. But we’d just heard from him the week before! He’d called and talked to our son twice. He’d talked to so many people. We have emails from him that we were about to reply to. He’d just sent me a link to a song, “Mother May I,” in a note saying, “A ringtone for Zancy lady.”
He read the Hebrew name of G-d, the tetragrammaton’s four unpronounceable letters, as a representation of respiration: one breath in, one breath out. That sound was the Holy of Holies. He told me this last summer, over the phone. I was sixty years old, but that insight sounded like the most brilliant thing I’d ever heard. He took very seriously his midlife conversion to Orthodox Judaism, talking to rabbis and Hasids, reading Maimonides and Hillel, and using his middle name, “Elias,” to sign himself at times. Eclectic defined him, as did sudden turns at perpendicular angles. He called himself “the grandson of Wallace Stevens and Hilda Doolittle, Jimmy Rogers and Sippie Wallace, and first cousin to Paul Blackburn” in a questionnaire on his New York School connections. Sippie Wallace, a jazz singer and songwriter, was called “The Texas Nightingale,” and Jimmy Rogers played with Muddy Waters. Blurbs from the back of Weatherly’s last book, short history of the saxophone, praise how his work “condenses the wisdom of a life and vast readings into brilliantly compact music,” as Andrei Codrescu writes; Howard Kissel of the New York Daily News calls him “that rarest of birds, a mystic with a sense of humor . . . a red-blooded American Zen master.”
Weatherly’s family made him proud. His father was a chemist, mathematician, and school administrator; his mother taught school. His daughter Regina’s twin girls were a delight for him; he was always a man good with children, the caregiver for his own son, nicknamed T3, through his infancy and childhood. He told me he’d carried that baby around wherever he went. He went to college early, attending Morehouse at age fifteen, in 1958, but Alabama A&M College expelled him for publishing an underground paper, The Saint: years later, he’d sign himself sometimes “W” with a halo like the one used by pulp detective Simon Templar, and he kept a blog called Saint Satin Stain. After college, he joined the Marines and was, as he told my son just recently during a phone call, at the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. But he kept on with that education: in New York by the mid-sixties, he became a regular at St. Marks Poetry Project, studying there with Joel Oppenheimer in 1967, then teaching workshops himself. He attended City College one summer, Hofstra University for three sessions, and in 1974 joined David Ignatow’s seminar as a special student at Columbia University, which is where Eugene Richie and I met him.
In the mid-sixties, Weatherly met members of Umbra, a Black poet’s workshop active from 1961–64 on the Lower East Side. Eli and Ted Wilentz of the Eighth Street Bookstore published Weatherly’s first book, Maumau American Cantos (New York: Corinth Books, 1970). Tom, in turn, gathered work by many Umbra poets in Natural Process: An Anthology of New Black Poetry, which he edited with Ted Wilentz (New York: Hill and Wang, 1970). The group celebrated a fiftieth reunion last autumn, which Tom attended. He began the Natural Process Workshop in East Harlem in 1968; in the early seventies, it merged with the Saint Mark’s Poetry Project. In addition to his workshops at Saint Marks, he taught Afro-Hispanic art at Rutgers–Newark and poetry workshops at Rutgers, Bishop College, Grand Valley State College, and Morgan State College. He taught for Poets in the Schools in New York and at Rikers Island. Later, he tutored privately, working with poets Madeline Tiger, Julia Kasdorf, Megan Buckley, and others. He was a natural teacher, generous and engaged, pulling books from shelves, introducing writers to masters of their craft both old and contemporary. For my own work, Tom’s opinion of a poem was one I trusted above all others: he knew the music.
At the Lion’s Head Pub, where he was the second cook, he met more writers, artists, and musicians including David Amram and the folk singer Dave von Ronk. Codrescu remembers him as one of a conterie of macho writers, “growly-lion types,” “a tall Black poet” who “always gave poor writers like myself extra shrimps in the shrimp cocktail, which was the only thing I could afford besides one beer.” The afternoon that Codrescu first met George Plimpton, a story that he relates in a 2003 Downtown Express article, Tom gave him whiskey on credit at the bar.
After the Lion’s Head closed, and for the next thirty years, you could find Tom at the Strand Bookstore. His book collection burgeoned: he’d show me rare editions of H. D., whose work he adored and introduced me to. For a lover of books, this job was almost too much: when we lived near him on the Lower East Side, his East Houston Street apartment, at Hamilton Fish Court, had been outfitted with metal bookshelves arranged like library stacks, with narrow aisles of living space between them. He worked at the Strand Bookstore with poet Ben McFall, the artist Aissatou Mijiza-Weaver, and others, and met many more friends and writers while there. Michal Hollander tells me that in 1981, during her first month at NYU grad school, he found her browsing the stacks, reshelving misplaced books as she went along. He decided then and there that he loved her. In the next millennium, his mother left him a red brick house on a leafy street in Huntsville, Alabama, and he relocated, splitting his time for a while between his hometown and the city where so many of us awaited his migratory returns.
Back in the early 80s, when Eugene and I were at NYU’s Silver Towers, between Bleecker and Houston, Tom was way down east by Hamilton Fish, in an apartment with two bicycles hanging from bike hooks in the ceiling, bookshelf stacks marching through the entire studio room, and a couch by the front windows. He was a bicycle evangelist, who could talk anyone into buying one. Once upon a time, he accompanied me to an Alphabet City shop where he knew the staff well and outfitted a mixte frame for me, with side panniers and a wide seat. Then we went riding out very early in a summer's morning, all the way west down Houston and out to the Hudson River docks. On the way back, he bought a watermelon from a street vendor and bungee-cord-strapped it onto the front rack of his bike, and we took it home to Gene for breakfast. Ten years later, he rode his bike through Long Island, camping out in our backyard in Port Washington overnight.
Enamored of and soon an expert at internet communications technology, Weatherly kept more than one blog: he started Eclectic Git and Saint Satin Stain, at http://saintsatinstain.blogspot.com. He sent his “Weatherly Report” periodically to a long email list of friends and followers, and posted often on Facebook. He also wrote for and posted on the progressive blog Left in Alabama, a sounding-board for his changing politics. Well to the right, for much of his life, of most of his New York cohorts and associates, a life-long Republican and Libertarian, Tom swung to left during the Bush administration and supported Barack Obama enthusiastically.