|DEPARTMENTS||APRIL 2006 – NO. 5|
The tall man with the Irish face was sitting on a commuter train late in the morning, meditating on his book. He probably boarded in Katonah, close enough to the first stop to get a nice seat, mid-car, at the window of a three-seater. The trip on the Harlem line isn't the most beautiful, straight down the middle of Westchester County, not like the Hudson line along the water, where the river comes within feet of the tracks and the George Washington Bridge glitters overhead. But, still — green trees, rolling hills, granite outcroppings, along with the swingset-studded backyards and the bus yards and acres of SUVs and station wagons.
At my stop, I stepped on and popped into the end of the first long seat with only one occupant. I was on my way to interview Chuck Strum, the obits editor of The New York Times, one of the most powerful people in the obituary world, and I was nervous. I was together enough to be carrying notepaper, pencils, and a tape recorder, but not enough to remember the list of questions I had prepared to ask him. There was static flying off me when I realized this — if I were a cartoon character, a few squiggly lines in the air around my head would have conveyed it — and, rooting around in my purse, I dropped my cell phone onto the seat and it tumbled to the floor. My seatmate lunged, but the phone slid under the seat. He said sympathetically, "Oh that's happened to me — on airplanes, which is worse." And that was when I saw that that great stillness next to the window was the former poet laureate of the United States, Billy Collins.
He's a personable guy, with an open, friendly face; you don't need to know him to have a conversation. This is the poet who mocked the pedants' urge to "tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it," whose latest book is called The Trouble with Poetry, an informal, sociable man who could talk about anything — until the topic of death was introduced, after which he could talk only about obituaries.
He was riding in to promote a new anthology of poems he edited, 180 More. He held it up, show-and-tell, and was pleased when I took it and started riffling through its pages — mostly living poets, though there were a handful who died in the '90s and early this century. It's not that I don't care about the living, but the year 2004 was a terrible year for poets, and sure enough that cascade of the recently dead are represented: Donald Justice and Czeslaw Milosz, who died in August, followed by Virginia Hamilton Adair and Michael Donaghy in September, then Anthony Hecht in October, all old if not ancient, except for Donaghy, who died of a brain aneurysm at 50. I hated seeing that 50, my age. Poetry is not a pressured or dangerous activity in most countries. Non-suicidal poets tend to live long lives, and poets cherish their elders; they grow old and are not forgotten. Stanley Kunitz was about to turn 100 and had to run around constantly being honored. Collins himself was only 63. He shook his head. Donaghy was practically a kid.
Michael Donaghy wasn't famous here. He didn't rate even a short New York Times obit. He was an Irish-American who emigrated to London and published three wonderful books of poetry in England, where he was known and beloved for his poetry and the Irish music he made. But anyone who had seen him read his work would never forget him. He memorized his poems and delivered them with audacity — chatty, witty poems, often rhymed, with humble subjects and beautiful phrasing: a lovely mix of the high and low arts. The audience I saw him with had been riveted. Months later his obituaries and letters from his stricken friends filled the London papers. Even the potentially snarky Telegraph had seen fit to write a long and literate appreciation, honoring him as a "prizewinning poet whose own stories, such as when he manhandled Pavarotti into a cab, found expression in formal, elegant verse." "Formal and elegant" doesn't quite convey it, though. Here's that poem in Collins's anthology, "Local 32B," about Donaghy's stint as a doorman, with its prophetic line, "An Irish doorman foresees his death."
Once I got a cab for Pavarotti. No kidding.
No tip, either.
The poem ends:
Yessir; I put the tenor in the vehicle.
And a mighty tight squeeze it was.
We sat on the late-morning train, laughing over the vivid voice that had survived the death of its speaker. Then Collins added a delicious footnote. "Did you know the 'tenor' and the 'vehicle' are literary terms? They're parts of a metaphor. In 'My love is like a rose,' for instance — 'my love' is the tenor and 'a rose' is the vehicle. 'I put the tenor in the vehicle.' Such a clever man."
Collins's father (and many others, no doubt) used to call obituaries "the Irish sports page." Collins missed the whimsical obits of Robert McG. Thomas, Jr.; they met his high literary standards. We rode a few minutes with our silent thoughts. Obituaries made the great sprawl of New York a small town. "You know, I once wrote a poem called 'Obituaries'" Collins said, a little shyly.
… eventually you may join
the crowd who turn here first to see
who has fallen in the night …
As if I didn't know he was one of us!
Reprinted from The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, by Marilyn Johnson © Marilyn Johnson. Published by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.
Where loss is found.
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