Tuesday, July 15, 2008

At The Heart's Windowsill

Somehow I'd expect winter, not summer, would place my dead in my mind. Maybe it's just the wildfires burning, to the south, to the north, at the coast. The smoke gets in my eyes, in my lungs, I am constantly wiping the stinging tears away and staring at the vivid orange sun, the burnt orange moon.

When you have a bookstore, and you accept everyone's lost books, everyone's aunt's collection of Reader's Digest Condensed, every batch of literature from a divorce or a death, every so often you have a surprise. Or two. Because you are tending the orphans, the survivors.

And they come brittle, and they come with spiders, and they come with grocery lists and poems, with old letters and underlining.

Usually it is a pleasure. A couple weeks ago the daughter of a departed friend and mentor of mine brought in another batch of her mother's books. Poetry and gardens, literature and birds. And those underlinings, and...in a book of Nabokov, in the rounded young handwriting of my barely out of the teens years, two rough drafts of a poem.

I'd forgotten this poem entirely; the notebook of that time was lost long ago. It wasn't a great poem by any means, but there it was, in several versions, as is my wont still--striving to get the lines right, striving towards the poem that must be.

My friend must have picked these discarded pages up from where I tossed them, at the library we worked at, and held them. Perhaps she forgot she had them--but for decades she was, after all, my primary reader, the one who saw what I was striving towards.

Sometimes our friendship hit hard times, but her eye never faltered. It was a gift, and I have missed it greatly since her death.

And then, yesterday, in a batch of books stored in someone's garage, a little volume of poetry by Michael Skilling.

I never called him that; he was Poet. To some he was Michael the Poet; to me he was only Poet, and that last year or so of his life he came to me for a certain refuge from a difficult life. Most of the time he was drunk, often he was also sick, and in the end the drinking and the pain killed him.

My friend Red tended to him his very last days, and Red too is gone from us, and what do you do with the grief that still wells up, the loss of good friends, the pity of it all?

So Michael called me Finland, except when he called me by my full and formal name, a privilege he took to himself. And he howled mad poetry, and he wept for his dead wives, his burnt house, his still present and faithful cat.

He died in the winter. I remember rushing to his hospital bed, only to sit with his father beside his body, to sit and cry and talk about his son. His father too had just arrived. Red had made certain Poet's body was decent. The little hospital let us burn candles in the darkened room as the storms swept by.

His poems aren't great, but I can see him singing them. He hung out with Ginsberg and Neal Cassady; he was a great friend of Bob Kaufman's. He had rough times. He was street wise, friend of the Hells Angels, full of passion and regret.

I have his hat. I don't know how I ended up with his hat, a thing of patchwork and madness, but I have it. Probably he left it here one of the times he fell asleep near the poetry, relaxing a bit, leaning over "Hey, Finland, you're a fine woman".

From "A longing to be gone" by Michael the Poet

Sometimes he'd wander
But mostly he'd roam.
Sometimes use a treebranch
for a brush and a comb.
Sometimes he'd stay up late
To help people home.
Sometimes he drank raindrops,
Sometimes river foam.
Sometimes he ate wild oats,
Sometimes he'd just sow 'em
And even standing quietly
Would look like a poem.

So one day he laid down
And stayed down to rest,
As falcons flew homeward
While owls left their nest,
And bright fishes danced
On the dark ocean's breast
And the moon moved soft shadows
That chased on his chest.

He dreamed that a wolf king
Stood high on a hill,
Two paws like a thief
At the heart's windowsill,
Looking for footprints
Which a princess would fill,
For he knew you'd be coming,
In the ways that you will,
So far away, Magic,
But I love you still.

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