Last night I got a message that Robert Bly has passed through the veil. I was at a loss for words but in my silence I heard his voice.
The particular cadence of his reading/reciting his poems and translations of other poets. His penchant to repeat poems a 2nd time to let the language float in a room and settle in the ear before settling in the heart. In that voice I heard the reticent and plain spoken of a rural MN he grew up in. It is a plow cutting the spring field of language to make a furrow for meaning.
I did not really know him personally though I did perform with him at a library and a church that he did not attend in the year I was the “Humanities Scholar in Residence” in northern Minnesota. I did have a couple of conversations with him about storytelling – especially traditional and religious stories – around those performances, but in so many ways he remains a poet on the page making images and metaphors manifest.
Some would say that it is ironic that I actually know Bill Duffy, his partner in the publication of their influential poetry magazine – the ‘50’s which morphed into the ‘60’s with the turning of the years - better as he was my high school English teacher and the man who first introduced me to contemporary poetry. It was Bill Duffy, not Robert Bly, that brought James Wright and Etheridge Knight into the classroom to read and to encourage us to write. It was Bill Duffy who was the student newspaper advisor that submitted one of my articles to the competition that netted me my first writing prize, that chaperoned us to and from Milwaukee for a regional journalism conference where we wound up necking with girls from a rural Minnesota school on the train back to the Cities. It was also Bill Duffy who was my student driving instructor, telling me about Bob Dylan’s new “talking blues” songs while using our time together to run his dry cleaning and post office errands.
Bill Duffy is still alive and I have his phone number somewhere and given this news, I think it’s time to give him a call.
Still I was not prepared for how the news of Bly’s departure would disturb my sleep. Not his loss, large as it is and how it will echo through the poetry community for months or years to come but for the echos it prompted of other deaths, of those close to me and others, not so close but impactful all the same. At four in the morning I made a list of names, dates (when I knew them) and in a few instances how long I had known them when they passed through the veil.
David Darst 1969
A fellow Christian Brother, the religious order I was a part of. He was a member of the Catonsville 9 (with Frs. Dan and Phil Berrigan) who burned draft files and went to trial, was found guilty, and was killed in an automobile accident before he would serve time.
Ken Feit 1981
A Jesuit when I met him, later a clown become a “Holy Fool” and one of my storytelling mentors. He also died in an automobile accident on the way the the Gathering of radical theater performers and companies. It was at the gathering that i met Carol Bly, Robert’s first wife.
Reuven Gold ??
A rabbinic storyteller from Chicago, IL who told traditional Hassidic stories and was my other storytelling mentor, a man who demonstrated more than anyone the power of being inside the story even as you are telling it.
Hannah Niemi 1989
My daughter, who died two weeks after her birth as a result of product failure. This is the grief that I have never left behind, the one that shattered happiness and made changed what storytelling was for me.
Don Byrne 1993 26 years
A Christian Brother, my doppelgänger, who I had know for half my life when he died of AIDS. Even now he appears as a kind of Neal Cassidy to my Jack Kerouac in poems and stories as a mystery and a revelation about what it means to be alive.
K Basil O’Leary 2004
Another Christian Brother, he was a member of the Milwaukee 14, who also burned draft files, went to trial, was found guilty and served time. I was there for all of it and a paper I wrote for his final philosophy symposium got me kicked out of the St. Mary’s College/University Education program as Brother Leonard Courtney’s said, “I was too radical to teach.”
Uncle Johnny Catani 2007
He was the uncle I wanted, the man who made his own wine, taught me how to play bocce ball, swear in Italian and drive a dump truck.
Brother Blue 2009
The original charismatic storyteller “rapper” he stands as a marker of the power of language as music and grace.
She died on Christmas Eve in a bed set up next to the Christmas tree after a long complicated life marked by generosity and an underlying unresolved anger (or mystery) that she was an orphan.
Kris Nelson 2011 37 years
We worked together through most of the 70’s. His doctors told him that because of his heart he wouldn’t live to see 30, but he did, and then went on to die in his sleep at 60 years old.
Roy McBride 2011
He was a big hearted, street smart poet, who like Brother Blue, cast a shadow well beyond his stature.
The last of his siblings, he died at 92 with the kind of death I would wish for – flirting with a nurse, taking a walk with my sister, and saying “I’m tired,” he sat in a chair and never got up. Like the beginning that came with mother’s passing, his death was the certification that I am an orphan and for better or worse now an elder of my generation.
Earl Potvin 2014
My college art instructor for drawing, painting, the making canoe paddles – he was fond of walks marked by few words between packing and smoking his pipe but such a careful observer of the world that I could not help but be influenced,
Bobbie (sister) 2016
My youngest former wild child sibling, her passing was both aneurism sudden and coma extended until the organ donors were lined up to take what she could offer as a last gifting.
Gregory Hanses ?? 49 years
A Christian Brother, we lived on the farm and worked with Juvenile Justice offenders in the early ‘70’s. He said, “We live in the present with an attitude of gratitude.” and did. It took me two years of searching to find him after he disappeared and when I did, it was the grief before death of Alzheimer’s. Even now I do not have an actual date of his passing and perhaps that is just as well.
Mike Cotter 2017
I was sitting next to him at the Mythos Conference when he told his “first” story of what it was to be a third generation farmer from Austin, MN then put him on stage for his first “performance” and stood back to watch his joy in telling.
Melisande Charles 2017 42 years
Artist first and last, she was the embodiment of creation and connection. Over the years we worked together, traveled together, photographed the world and each other with Polaroid cameras and above all else loved each other unconditionally.
Every one of those names has stories attached to them. Stories of extraordinary lives even if they seem to be the most ordinary of lives. If I did nothing in the time I have left other than to tell their stories and my own in relationship to them, it will be a compendium of folly and grace, redemption and magic. Real magic. The manifestation of what is present but unseen until it is needed. The revelation of beauty and meaning in the everyday.
Above all else it is my duty and my joy.
I know there are others who are missing and at my age (and given the fact that my parents and most of my relatives have died in their late 80’s or 90’s) there will be many more who will be added to this kind of compendium. Poets, storytellers, siblings and cousins, nieces and nephews. Friends new and old, lovers and former lovers, all of whom know or should know that we must be here for and with each other while we can, for Death comes to us all. Tell the stories now. Play the music, dance, sing, raise that glass of water or wine to toast each other, now.
That is what Robert Bly’s death has been. The reminder that this here and this now is what counts. Be present. Be well.