As January 2005 began unfolding, I thought I was about ready to devote a
little time to some new poems again. You know, a few hours a week to draft what
might become promising lines, which then might make further promises about
fitting together in an absorbing, organic way. And I did manage to get started
on a few useful fragments.
experience of writing a poem has become for me the most longed-for of life’s
pleasures. I guess a scientist could monitor the alternately relaxing and
stimulating effects of poetry composition on the brain. Naturally, such monitors
would pinpoint activities in the various synapses without providing any
indication about the quality of the poem itself. But quality becomes irrelevant
to a pre-posthumous writer. Any opportunity to live in words—even if only to
escape into them—is one positive step in defense against the Grim Reaper.
the first days of 2005 ineluctably became second and third episodes in a year
that bodes as much evil as good, it was not a question of whether the little
glasses (in this case representing various fragments of poetry) were half full
or half empty. It was clear that the earthquakes and tsunamis that had come
without warning to Indonesia, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka the day after
Christmas had put me in my own ways “on the run,” playing “mop up” right
here at home. Unusually rainy weather began about the same time, and by the wee
hours of the morning on January 3rd, I found myself driving my mother
to the Emergency Room at Los Robles Hospital through a whopper of a downpour.
Two weeks later, after time in the ICU and regular hospital, the rain quite
relentless, she was resting again at our mini-hospital right here at home.
were starting to get back to normal. Hospice care began kicking in for my
father. He had been further weakened by Parkinson’s during the last year, but
he was able to celebrate his ninety-fifth birthday on January 10th by
consuming several large slices of chocolate cake.
in the intervening time, spyware viruses (along with the other assortments of
“worms” and “Trojan horses”) had made it necessary for Steve Lewis, my
mentor in website management, to change the software that allows me to upload
these essays (and poems) into cyberspace. Not really computer literate, I rely
on a kind of Pidgin English to negotiate my work on the web, and when the powers
that be pass new laws and regulations for “security purposes,” I must work
anew with any cognosciente who will
deign to guide me through the new hoops. Steve
is very patient; but, though I managed to get “Pre-Posthumous Manifesto”
onto my site, the link back to the main page is wrong and other typos and links
need to be fixed on different pages. All of which must wait until I can
comprehend and work out my way to understand the new system.
that material virtually inaccessible (no pun intended) to alternations, I could
still scroll through and reread my documents, but couldn’t change or add
anything. I was as detached from those texts, I think, as if I had been a reader
on a distant planet discovering them for the first time. Of course, a poem or
essay or story printed in a journal or magazine also creates a kind of distance
in which the author can become an imagined reader and take pleasure or umbrage
or whatever might happen in the process of reconnection.
But this was something new: a barrier of ignorance distanced me from my
own work. Out there in the distance of cyberspace was my real life which the world has conspired to annihilate and cut me off
from. Like P.B. Shelley, I want to be one with that world, to have access to it
for the subtle additions and revisions I needed to make. I had the overwhelming
urge to escape the mundane realities of life in the year 2005 and live in and
for my art. Vissi d’arte, vissi
d’amore ! Is my New England countryman, Robert Frost, any help here in
keeping me focused on the tasks at hand?
woods are lovely dark and deep,
I have promises to keep,
miles to go before I sleep,
miles to go before I sleep.
(“Stopping by the Woods
On a Snowy Eve”)
I discovered some really bad news on the obituary page of the Los Angeles
Times’ Sunday edition: my former English 1A student, Justin Barton, from a
class in the Fall of 1999 had died suddenly on January 8th, and the
funeral was scheduled for 2PM Monday, January 17th at Mount Sinai
Mortuary, Forest Lawn. The announcement included a snapshot with his familiar
smile and his head of thick black hair.
didn’t take me long to remember when I saw Justin for what was to be the last
time. After he started his on-line business, he had rented office space on La
Brea, which he told me his friend Tommy had painted a pleasing Verona green. So
Ben and I, when driving in the area, sometimes stopped in to see him—me to get
caught up on his knowledge of the internet and the stock market (excellent
information, but not of too much use to me), and Ben to ask questions about
social skills, the Beatles, capital punishment, unfair treatment of “illegal
immigrants,” nudity, and other subjects most people don’t have much time
day Justin was in the middle of helping a friend with his website for a flower
shop business in the Valley, but while he worked with his friend, he considered
each of Ben’s questions and found time to answer as best he could. I was the
one who eventually told Ben to call it quits. Then, maybe a few months later,
when we happened to be in the area again, Ben asked about Justin, so we decided
to drop in yet again, but by then the office was bare—the computers gone, the
walls still painted that pleasing green color.
that his home number was still on my cell phone from the time he invited me to a
Christmas party at his parents’ home off Laurel Canyon in the hills
overlooking Studio City, I debated from time to time about giving him a call
just to find out where he had moved the business, or what he was up to. It had
even occurred to me before this Christmas to give him a call, but I didn’t
want to appear to be seeking another invitation to what I assumed was an annual
so many others, I spend oodles of time in Los Angeles traffic—far more than is
healthy and certainly more than is good for anyone who would rather be writing
or doing physical labor. Connections with people and places in the sprawling
landscape that is Los Angeles are forcibly brief—always cut short by the need
to pay the parking meter or beat the traffic in one or another part of town.
had our relationship really amounted to? Justin had been a brilliant and
interesting student in a rather pedestrian English 1A class. Having taught for
many years, I often remember students by their paper topics rather than their
names, and Justin at first was no different, having written a good first paper,
“A Day in the Life of a Day Trader,” and a second about the memory of his
grandfather pointing out famous spots in New York City to a young Justin. But as
the semester wore on, I recognized that he had plenty of intellectual curiosity.
Since he chose to do his research paper on the life of John D. Rockafeller, we
had debated the virtues and dangers of unbridled capitalism and free markets.
Although he was a devotee of Adam Smith, he was open to exploring what that
authority had meant when he discussed “enlightened self interest.” These
discussions led to regular e-mail that continued well beyond the end of that
class, which eventually led me to see him at “work” at his father’s
business. There among busy dry cleaner he had a makeshift office full of
computers. He was keeping up with his investments and already talking about the
website business he was about to launch. My visits with him there, on Jefferson
Boulevard in Culver City, led to an invitation to the Christmas party, but was
that in December 2001 or 2002? It
seems now to have been in 2001, but maybe it was as long ago as the year 2000.
funeral service was well attended. I got there too early and ended up driving in
Griffith Park, getting out to use the bathroom near the Merry-Go-Round. It
seemed like the right place to be while waiting for a funeral. I also had time
to read a few inscriptions on the walls of the mausoleum and consider the kinds
of lives the “dearly departed” might have had. Most were long lived, but a
few, like Justin, had passed on in their early twenties, and these seemed to be
the subjects of the most poignant messages of remembrance.
the service I decided to exit via his open casket, mostly to thank the rabbi for
his words and to share with him that I had had the same discussions with Justin
that he had alluded to in his address, but then for the first time I understood
the need for open caskets in some cases: I needed that last glance at the body
to be convinced that Justin had died. There he was with his black hair combed
back in a way he never would have combed it himself. His eyes, of course,
closed. His body there as visible proof positive, but the Justin I remember
always had a warm twinkle of friendship and caring in his eyes. Where had that
as I drive in Los Angeles, it seems that every tenth car must contain a Justin
behind the wheel. So many young men with dark hair on the road, for whatever
reason, trapped like the rest of us in Los Angeles traffic. He lives on in many
memories out there no doubt, but it is mine that is placing him behind those
wheels, for reasons I can only begin to explore in words. I who have returned to
Los Angeles, after leaving it in my early twenties, have sometimes imagined that
there was something here I needed to return to in my own life, to pick up again
where I left off at age twenty-two. I
think now that idea is mostly an illusion because the pace of life for one in
his fifties doesn’t equate well with a twenty-something’s. I need to face
it: whatever it was that I might have done to adjust to life in Los Angeles at
that earlier age passed me by the moment I chose to leave.
But perhaps the central message is Time itself wasted--in
traffic, in money spent on spiffy cars and clothes, in the scheduled events and
ritual exercises that we keep on doing merely to keep up appearances and
establish meaningful routines.
theme that came out in all the remembrances of Justin at the funeral was the
double-edged sword of his devotion to others and of his high standards for
himself. As his friend Tommy said,
until January 8th, his final day of life, he never gave himself a
I recognize that I had a sense of his vulnerability in this area without really
knowing how to address it, or how as a teacher I might have offered some
council. It’s easy when a student has skills as a writer and/or wants to
teach. You can offer suggestions and clarify choices and sacrifices, but that
was not Justin’s case. He really
didn’t seem to have time or the need to get a university education. It was too
elementary, and he had better things to do. And unlike many students, he
convinced me he knew whereof he spoke. But maybe not.
am convinced that any attempt I might have made to follow any particular course
of study would not have made much of an impression.
I finish up this essay, January 2005 is slipping away minute by minute. I can
barely hold on to consciousness as I recuperate from the flu and think about all
that has already happened this month and all that still lies ahead for me.
Fortunately there are moments when I get off to a concert (Schumann’s Piano
Concerto at Disney Hall), listen to CDs in the car (the Russian National
Orchestra’s fine recording of the Pathetique Symphony), go some distance with
friends to hear a poetry reading (Robert Bly in San Jose), and then revisit a
poet’s stone house built with his hands (Robinson Jeffers’ Tor House in
Carmel). The countryside in California right now reminds me of “England’s
green and pleasant land.”
I will not escape from Los Angeles easily or find as much time I would like to
write poetry or learn fast enough to keep up with changes in the world of
software for computers, I will at least find the time to drive by a billboard on
Westwood Boulevard just south of Wilshire where Justin’s face has a brilliant
sunset as a backdrop. There he is described as a good confidante, and that he
is another expression of loving farewell to someone who always burned with a
“gemlike flame” in other ways than the merely literary, and whose life meant
a great deal to everyone who knew him.
own miles ahead seem a little shorter when I think how much life he had to load
in to his far briefer time in this planet. Cut off in his golden years! Nearly
the same age as John Keats!