Amid the flurry of packing, sorting, buying, and throwing things away, I took the time to sit awhile and stopped by Maud’s. I was shocked to read that Robert Creeley passed away this morning.
I’m sure many more will write lovely tributes and fitting eulogies, but I wanted to share the few memories I had of his visit to the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville on 19 March. That afternoon he spoke on “Reflections on Whitman in Age,” the subject of his essay for The Virginia Quarterly Review.
I knew we were all witnessing something inexpressibly poignant: Creeley with his small, newly-acquired oxygen tank ruminating on death and Whitman’s final poems. He was anything but austere, smiling frequently in bemusement at the inevitable flight of time.
He spoke of D.H. Lawrence’s “Ship of Death” and Emily Dickinson’s “Certain Slant of Light” in terms of death as passage. He related the story of Proust wanting to rewrite the death scene while he was on his own deathbed.
In reading “Ship of Death,” his voice wavered. He said, “Unless we die, it will all have been a dream,” and spoke of Whitman. He said that death makes memory and recollection necessary and more real. He confessed that while reading Hart Crane’s “The Bridge,” he felt closer to Whitman than he ever had before. Commonness exists in transparency when it enters the public consciousness. The Whitman we read is extremely individual. As Creeley said, “The reader of Whitman becomes Whitman.”
He spoke of Whitman as a poet contriving to enact the real: the act of writing becomes equally as real as doing what is written of.
Ending his brief talk with a moving reading of “Good-Bye My Fancy,” he interrupted himself in the middle of the poem to whimsically comment, “He reminds me of Ginsberg--‘What do I want? Particulars!’”...and read on.
I love words sometimes more than life itself...but they fail me when I remember Robert Creeley--all 78 years of him--reading with such compassion and effortless understanding: quiet bemusement at the existence of mortality.
His poetry reading that night (the first with his oxygen tank--he said in February he began having trouble breathing) continued in this vein. Such genial humor and tender understanding permeated his words. He told stories from his stint with the American Field Service in India and Burma during the latter part of WWII (incidentally, the same time and place where my grandfather served in the malaria-control branch of the Army Medical Corps). He read “Possibilities” and spoke of Helen Vendler and Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”--how impending death is elegant, but isolation imposes. One listener’s comment led him to read “Memory,” excusing any potential crudity with an impish smile.
In his VQR essay on Whitman he concludes,
Perhaps Whitman’s “fancy” was not only such a power but a person as well, even the memory of a person, that presence acknowledged over and over just as was his own being there too insistently emphasized always. In that world, perhaps one’s whole life is a dream, a practical, peculiarly material dream, whose persons become the same complex “music” which Keats’ nightingale evokes, a tenacious fabric of inexhaustible yearning. Is that the “world” which has to fall away in age? When one can no longer sustain it? Can it even matter, given—as the poet Edward Dorn made clear—the last thing a man says will be a word.
And so I leave a few words here, scattered across cyberspace and the 1s and 0s that have the capability of connecting us in unseen ways. And here is what he wrote. (God be with you, Robert Creeley.)
What do you wear?
How does it feel
to wear clothes?
what you were or where?
This accident, accidental, person,
feeling out, feelings out -
outside the box one's in -
skin's resonances, reticent romances,
the blotch of recognition, blush?
It's a place one's going,
going out to, could reach
out just so far to be at the edge
of it all, there, no longer inside,
waiting, expectant, a confused thing.
One wanted skin to walk in,
be in. One wanted each leg to stand,
both hands to have substance,
both eyes to look out, recognize,
all of it, closer and closer.
Put it somewhere, one says.
Put it down. But it's not a thing
simply. It's all of it here,
all of it near and dear,
everywhere one is, this and that.
Inside, it could have been included.
There was room for the world.
One could think of it, even be simple, ample.
But not "multitudes," not that way in -
It's out, out, one's going. Loosed.
Still - wistful in heaven, happy in hell?
Sky was an adamant wall,
earth a compact of dirty places,
faces of people one used to know.
Air - smell, sound and taste - was still wonderful.
One dreamed of a thoughtless moment,
the street rushing forward, heads up.
One willed almost a wave of silence
to hear the voices underneath.
Each layer, each particular, recalled.
But now to be here?
Putting my hand on the table,
I watch it turn into wood,
Fibrous, veins like wood's grain,
But not that way separated - all one.
I felt a peace come back.
No longer needed to say what it was,
nothing left somehow to name only -
still was each each, all all,
evident mass, bulky sum, a complex accumulation?
My mother dying sat up, ecstatic,
coming out of the anaesthetic, said,
It's all free! You don't have to pay
for any of it... It's there
if you can still get to it?
Come closer, closer. Come as near
as you can get. Let me know
each edge, each shelf of act,
all the myriad colors, all the shimmering presences,
each breath, finger of odor, echoed pin drop.
Adumbrate nature. Walk a given path.
You are as much its fact as any other.
You stand a scale far smaller than a tree's.
A mountain makes you literal as a pebble.
Look hard for what it is you want to see.
The sky seems in its heavens, laced with cloud.
The horizon's miles and miles within one's sight.
Cooling, earth gathers in for night.
Birds quiet, stars start out in the dark.
Wind drops. Thus life itself can settle.
Nothing's apart from all and seeing is
the obvious beginning of an act
can only bring one closer to the art
of being closer. So feeling all there is,
one's hands and heart grow full.