If they are dead, why are they whispering? *
“Reality goes on here more or less,” Bob scrawled on the backside of a postcard featuring a 1940s gathering of Kentucky mules—a line I instantly appropriated for the title of a flash fiction. In our 25-year off and on paper correspondence, he sent many begging-to-be-lifted lines, not the least of them: “I shiver like a constipated dog when I listen to a bad poem.” To stick my hand into the mailbox and pull out an envelope with his return address was to know I was in for a communication at once funny, furious, illuminating, thought-sparking and shrewd. (“Sending your book out to people is like sending out a piece of paper that says, if you could say one thing that would hurt my feelings, what would it be?”)
Why we fell into a correspondence, I’m not altogether sure. We’d met through a mutual friend in Pittsburgh, before he left the teaching side of academia and before he snagged a certificate in mixology from the International Institute of Bartending. He was an Omaha native, a Marine Corps veteran, a UC Irvine-trained deconstructionist, a musician who played the guitar and mandolin in several bands, one of them called New Standard Rain, a “semi-bluegrass band” (his description), once he landed in Kentucky. His day job: technical writing for the University of Kentucky’s College of Engineering. He was dissatisfied and restless in the best sense of those terms in his own work, always pushing toward a higher bar, always probing to uncover what more a poem might be. He had little to no tolerance for writers un-awed by the craft of writing, the easily satisfied, the non-persistent, but to his writer friends he was uncommonly generous with his time and resources. When, earlier in his career, living in Florida, he won an NEA (by “sheer luck,” he claimed), he treated me and our mutual friend to a snazzy South Beach, Miami lunch to celebrate our writing, too.
To each other, Bob and I wrote about “money work,” maddening bureaucracies, books, writing highs and lows, gardens, recipes for collard greens, his cats, the cat I’d taken in as a substitute for the dog I wanted, road trips. From Bob’s letters, I learned how acrobatic the word “phooey” could become. It was Bob who brought me up to speed on Simone Weil, Bob who recommended The Journal of John Woolman. Over the years, we exchanged many books—our own and others. He inscribed my copy of his first collection, Interferences (1987): “20 years in the scribbling + 3 more in the printing and ta-da etc. The cover’s nice, eh?” A lovely cover did wrap around such lines as: “If it is an aged demon it is sure to have no heels.” In one of his last letters to me, “laid low by a cold,” he was “reading all over the place,” he reported, especially enjoying Jim Harrison’s poems and their “sudden changes of direction.” He’d been worrying that all the “job-oriented” writing had rendered him “too simple-minded, too careful to avoid confusing anyone.” I understood the worry, but fiercely protested the self-criticism. Beginning to end, his poetry was neither simple-minded nor careful—and I’m not alone in that opinion. Dennis Nurkse declared himself “dazzled” by Bob’s “ambition” in The Beautiful City of Weeds (2005); Madeline DeFrees said of the poems collected in Boy Picked Up By the Wind (1992), winner of the Bluestem Poetry Award: “Here is a sensibility so limber that it requires the reader to reinvent imagination.” During a windstorm in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I reread Boy Picked Up By the Wind by the light of a kerosene lamp. It contains one of my favorite poems of Bob’s, “How I Became the Glorious Mr Dot.” In my second fan letter to him about that book, I suggested he take a few moments to strut about, chest puffed over the achievement. In his reply, he thanked me for being “amazingly kind” (which lead to further protests on my part) and signed off Mr. Pitiful Snothead, in the throes of yet another bad head cold.
A very lengthy list it would be, the full list of poems written by Robert Gregory that count as my favorites. Ditto the titles (e.g., “Someone’s Been Eating the Moon Again,” “This Morning, Breath Is Jealous”). Ditto favorite lines and sequences.
Some love is glue, some love is honey, some
comes and goes like rain, some love’s more like grass,
rank and strong at first, then dry and yellow and
forgetful, curled over on itself exhausted.
—“Not What You Asked Me”
sadness leaves a burn near where the breath goes in and out
so why don’t you tell me your joke? Aren’t I your friend?
—“Blue Johnson Air Hose”
You’re right, it’s always winter in some secret way
—“Even so (March 31st)”
Let’s not forget the god of underwear.
—“Reminder Too Long to Be a Sonnet”
He, with his raspy, gravelly voice, was the best reader/performer of his work and his is the voice I hear, reading his poetry on the page. He titled his last collection, published in 2013, You Won’t Need That. Unsettling, now, that title paired with his publication swan song, but there’s no arguing that, for anyone’s final book, it’s a spectacular title.
The myeloma that killed him was discovered when persistent leg pain sent him to the doctor. It was a shock to hear of his death, as the deaths of contemporaries always are, reminding us of our own block of narrowed time. We start out, a collective of friends and family, and then the collective shrinks. After Bob’s death, I couldn’t shake the image of a lengthy hallway, bluish in tint, visibility cloudy, as if seen through a cataract. Rows of doors, either side, to accommodate those exiting as the rest of us stragglers straggled on. To that image, scene and tired metaphor, I’m fairly certain Bob would have said “phooey.” And there’s the comfort.
* From “My Short Hour, My Inch, My One Poor Sand”