I became tongue-tied
and didn't say anything
when Philip Levine asked why R and I
never visited him in Fresno in 1972.
It was at a party in New York,
in 1997, I think, and I couldn't,
probably didn't want to,
remember the real reason.
R was the king of pain,
he owned the most of anyone (he believed.)
It ran deep and pure and abiding,
a liquid essence concocted out of a natural instinct
for the sublime, the sexual, and the hopeless.
I had pain, too (goddamnit) but his was supreme.
His pain swallowed everything (I liked that)
and spat it out like so much cosmic glue.
He'd agonized over each chess move, pool shot, sip of beer.
He'd spin rhyme, music, laughter, and infinite affection
out of acres of his scalding black bastard pain.
He owned white pain, too (being half white),
but black pain was his right hand, his angel, his calling card.
Women were drawn to it.
To its musky, damp oily stink (I hated that.)
He'd pull magnificence out of a miserable piano,
make the floor and ceiling weep,
would sit there, glowering,
hating God or himself (or me),
for bearing witness. For enjoying the pleasure
of his music, for being alive.
He'd suffer each suffocating inhalation
of his cigarette, the swooning women,
exhale whole pieces of himself
into the hard blue sex of his smoke, hovering
over each delicious note. The way he owned
himself in our minds, owned suffering,
as if cool and genius alone couldn't survive
a white mother's abandonment,
the blackness of an anonymous father,
one annihilating foster home after another,
the lush irresistible hub of a white woman's rejection,
his own brutal righteousness,
the embryonic humiliation of making gay pornography
in order to hide from the Vietnam war,
in order to eat, stagger
of the razor's edge ...
Most of all,
he suffered me,
who couldn't bear the incandescence of his self-absorption?
The truth is
I loved him more
than I hated him.
The truth is
I can't stop hearing his tortured righteous riff
because it won't stop
in my memory of him.
The real reason
I flew to Oakland from Kalamazoo
is because he sounded skeletal on the phone,
as if he'd finally swallowed the last drop
of his mulatto night-blooming curiosity,
as if what was left had made up its mind, for keeps.
I was angry before I hung up, before I got there,
stupefied that he didn't look up but stared
at his filthy floor mattress, as if it had flown
2000 miles to save his skinny half-black ass.
The sonuvabitch looked like a corpse
and smelled antediluvian, his books, piano, job,
and last woman gone, all gone, as if all
his preceding suffering was only practice ...
"Why did you want me here if you are not going to say anything?"
"I never said I wanted you here."
"Well, fuck you."
"Well, fuck you too."
Then we embraced, good warm black Russian Jewish bear hugs,
just like we always did.
Under his shades his thoughts looked gutted,
bruised, Talmudic. Only the sheer drenched cloth
of him remained. And a poetry book, They Feed They Lion,
by Philip Levine, his favorite poet.
I decided to be clairvoyant. "Let's visit Levine!
You can depress two Jews at the same time!"
"Why would Levine want to see us, we haven't done anything?"
So I called Levine, who didn't know me from Adam,
and said R, a black poet, who was from Detroit,
had gone to Wayne State and Iowa, like him,
was friends with his friend, the poet Michael Harper,
really needed to see him. Breathless,
I shut up long enough to listen.
"Okay, sure, fine, come visit then!"
Maybe it was simple curiosity or my stuttering,
or his intuitive goodness, but the next morning
we packed our youth into the rackety old shell
of R's two-geared VW, and headed toward Fresno,
two prodigal sons seeking a furlough from the inevitable.
Either the campground in Big Sur we stopped at
was on the way or I was lost, biding time,
I don't remember how we got there,
but that night, smoking hash, watching me
cut potatoes over a fire, R explained
in excruciating detail how the face of the woman I lived with
surfaced out of the muck of his dreams
every time he fucked someone.
He said it curiously, somewhat bemused.
Watching me slice the throat
of each motherfucking potato.
We'd been friends a long time.
I owned his envy of my hopefulness,
his loathing of my faith in him.
He owned my awe of the beautiful music
of a soul so exquisite it'd given birth
to an implacable love of poetry,
of music, a born again love for what
lay hidden in him, a prayerful belief
in the fragile terrible equilibrium of his goodness.
I dropped the knife and walked off
into the slow perfect silence of the redwoods.
Shivering, shriveled, looking up
into the vast roof of the Californian night,
I remembered his telling me how he'd watched Detroit burn,
how he'd lain curled on a rooftop,
watching the flesh of buildings curl into a rage so fine,
popping, one by one, the black wax faces melting below,
the streets a cauldron of self-abuse,
of a rage charred beyond recognition,
a rage that rocked him in its cradle-like embrace
all the way up to God, for a moment,
one sweet moment, as his city burned,
his people destroyed what little they owned,
as his adopted black mother wailed three floors below,
beautifully, with infinite grace ...
that's the ticket he'd said ...
the secret of living in this world ...
You just had to give up everything
enough times to reach God.
In the morning, we sat watching each other
not look at each other. We sat in the gloomy wet fog
without a fire, without hope,
each knowing what the other thought,
what the other knew,
that it was time to give up,
that it was time to stop holding on,
that he had given up enough times
to reach God.
We returned to Oakland.
I didn't call Levine, I wanted to but couldn't.
What could I say—that death won?
That I'd failed without really trying?
Staring out the plane's window, unreleased,
I recited Blake: "If the sun and the moon should doubt,
they'd immediately go out."
R murdered himself eight months later.
And I keep remembering the first time I saw him,
in a bar in Iowa, playing a silky piano,
how I'd immediately recognized what sustained him,
not the music, or poetry, or his appetite for suffering,
but there, under all his drifting world of pain,
his desire to see how much longer
the black bitter tide could sustain him,
how much longer
he could live on nothing.