Homage to Dick and Sarah Maxwell
June 15, 2003
Two years ago this day Dick Maxwell died.
Given a year
They do not float, these ghosts.
from whose lives there is no cure,
not with these ghosts who do not float
from what? This life, such as it is;
Sarah and I were the certified crazies.
For more than twenty years, throughout our friendship, we celebrated every New Year’s Eve
together, adhering to the same ritual each year (watching “the Ball” drop in Times Square
at midnight) and the same food fare: crab with spicy sauce for hors d’oeuvres, a lobster
apiece for dinner, each steamed to death in a large aluminum kettle as we attempted not
to hear the frantic scratching of claws on the cauldron’s side. Only Betty and Sarah
had guts enough to drop the lobsters in. We had individual small cups of hot butter
and lots of champagne to go round. Then, growing sleepy as we grew older: The Wait
until the Midnight hour, Dick Clark’s perennially boyish face mouthing the countdown
to our mutual New Year embrace and a round of champagne kisses. We made it, we lasted,
every year except toward the end of Sarah’s life, when she would doze off early.
She did not get to see that first four ton millennial Ball drop in Times Square.
Every spring we camped alongside the river off the Nacimiento/Fergusson Road, high in the hills
above the Pacific Ocean. Betty and I brought the heavy canvas tent we’d bought from our friend
Lee Rexroat for twenty-five dollars. Not able to arrive earlier because we had to work late
on Friday, I would set it up in the dark as best I could. Dick and Sarah had come down
in the afternoon, to erect their spiffy spandex tent--which could be folded up into a packet
no bigger than a handkerchief. By the time Betty and I arrived, all of their equipment
was in place. All we brought was that heavy canvas tent, metal stakes and poles, ourselves,
some wood, and booze. Dick and Sarah brought, regaled the campsite with, a Coleman lantern
and a Coleman stove, a huge cooler filled with two days’ worth of food, boxes of matches,
pots, pans, grills, church keys, bottle openers, pot grips, spatulas, sharp knives, trash bags,
water jugs, ice, a boom box, cassette tapes, kindling, a first-aid kit--and many (many!) books of poetry.
The river was roaring at night, fit music
for star-studded conversation and cognac,
sparks dancing in the dark around the crackling
fire we never let die until just before that
sweet end of consciousness, the sliding off
into sleep, but watched the coals succumb, slowly,
our faces fading in the diminishing firelight.
Next day, the river was ice cold, yet we all
slid into it (less willing than we had sleep),
I for my annual testicle-shrinking satori
in that swimming hole three miles short of our
campsite, a spot in the river once dammed up
by the Army Corps of Engineers, reached
after we crossed a wide valley. It continued
to bear the name “Hippie Hole,” for in early days
we shared it with a host of men, women
(breasts bare, round and smooth as the bottoms
of tea cups) and children: the pool itself a deep
lovely dark green basin into which our mellow
friends would plunge after swinging on a rope
suspended from a tree on the craggy hillside.
Now, the earth/water/air/flower children
long gone, this had become our very own
secret, sacred spot—-and Dick and I had set
a moratorium on work, choosing to recline
on the hillside, pursuing our respective tastes
in poetry (which often overlapped) while Sarah
and Betty, creatures of limitless energy,
hauled stones from upstream to erect
a new splendiferous dam to offset the winter
silt and debris, the water level rising until
the dark green basin grew inviting again.
We have a history of snapshots of these two
hearty water nymphs, these industrious
Rhine Maidens, at work--as well as shots
of two shameless male spouses watching,
with rapt appreciation, while discussing
the serious business of poetry, from shore.
There is little or nothing we did not do together. Betty and I had been married in 1957,
and we had two children--Timothy Blake and Stephen Frederick—-by the time I took my first
teaching job at the University of Hawaii, for $5,500 a year, in 1963. That’s where I met Dick,
who’d been teaching at Kamehameha High School and shifted to the university. He’d just married
Sarah, a very fine artist whose work I liked (as well as her), so we shared the raising
of children, after their first son, Timothy, and their second son, Bart, were born.
On the occasion of Tim’s birth, Dick and I called actual “study” or literary discussion off
and showed W. C. Fields and Buster Keaton films to our combined classes. The steady and often
agonizing pace of careers was held in common, but Dick seemed to enjoy teaching, at least
lecturing, more than I ever could. We all shared our homes (his second teaching job
was at Foothill College in Los Altos, California; mine in Monterey, so geographically,
we were still close). We shared their R.V. camper, which they would drive down and park
beside the ocean, where we drank pastis after they’d been to Paris, and ouzo after Betty
and I lived in Greece for a year (God bless sabbaticals!). We shared living room couches
and music and books, and even hot tubs owned by friends (we could never afford our own).
We shared the sight of our bodies, such as they were, uninhibited by nakedness.
Sarah was prone to late-night walks after parties, customarily--and sometimes dangerously—-
alone while Dick and I gabbed on about Yeats and Roethke and John Logan and Keats, Betty
having succumbed to sleep.
| One night I joined Sarah on her vigil
and she led me to a river
not far from the Bryant Street house
in which she’d been raised, a site
sheltered by trees she’d played beneath
as a child.
We shed out clothes
and danced among the leaves, totally
naked in moonlight, wine-inspired
children, Adam and Eve, yet
we never even touched one another—-
And then we dressed
in silence and walked back to the house.
Thank God I loved both Dick and Sarah, equally.
“I love what is,” Lenny Bruce said, “what might
have been is a dirty lie.” We had no dirty lies
and the list of all we lived together is endless:
the books discussed, Sarah and I searching
through fine fat art collections: Munch, Matisse, Manet,
Francis Bacon, Daumier, Kandinsky, Klee,
Arshile Gorky—-finding our favorite paintings,
comparing, cajoling, discovering flaws that we
could have rectified, of course, had we been on hand
in time to help those artists out.
Dick and I
had a storehouse of touchstone lines of poetry,
endless recitations, and libraries close at hand
from which, should memory fail (which it sometimes
did after too much wine, although also occasionally
made alert by it!) we resorted to. We too
discovered occasional flaws we could have
rectified, of course, had we been on hand
in time to help those poets out.
I remember the night, at the Foothill Writers Conference (which Dick started),
Betty held her own ground with the excellent poet Bill Dickey, the two
discussing murder mysteries. We all lived so much alike that when Dick’s sister
Sari first visited Betty and me and stepped into our house, she said, “You
have all the same stuff my brother does—-the books, the paintings, even
the phonograph records!” The latter provided endless nights of jazz:
Bill Evans, Monk, Parker, Red Garland, Paul Desmond, Lennie Tristano,
Lee Konitz with Warne Marsh. Whereas it was true that our tastes were similar,
I could never quite grasp his obsession with, his unqualified adulation
of Art Pepper, not as a musician (which I fully understood) but cultural hero.
By comparison, I revered a blind pianist, Art Tatum. But Richard was the only guy
who ever fully understood, and shared, my love of Hector Berlioz.
The white handkerchief routine each time we parted!
Saying goodbye at the close of another glorious weekend
together, always hard, never easy, a ritual that never
failed to bring us even closer together, as Betty and I
drove away: Sarah standing on the front stoop, her sly,
pixie smile of anticipation in place as I pretended that
I’d forgotten how we always parted, waiting until
the very last moment before we drove off to whip
the handkerchief from my pocket and wave goodbye
with furious love as they responded with whatever
they could find at hand: handkerchief, Kleenex,
a napkin, the pages of some literary journal perhaps—-
those flags, those tokens of mutual love we tucked
away as we returned to rich but separate lives.
I have pocketed that white handkerchief now,
never to wave it again, for them ... but I
can still feel it, soft and light as a feather
in my hand, and that gentle sense shall never die.
“Ain’t no good thing ever dies”.
When I walk to that world
When I move to the friends
'“Long since, this world’s thorny ways
Had numbered out my weary days
Had it not been for you!”
All else we valued—-this too high world
of “Art,” the demands of music beyond our reach,
words one had to fight for, the purely visual dance
that fell in place or didn’t, arrived or failed to come,
was compromised by ambition, envy, incidental achievement,
or the waste of the waiting and wanting itself—-
was fine, but this alone: the seemingly simple fact
of being friends, though hardly unconditional,
so much more important in retrospect.
Not that we lacked agony, God knows,
and not that the dead among friends, ex-friends, half friends,
false friends failed to accumulate. They seemed to lie
all around us, victims of some war from which, at times,
it was best not to come home. And so we stayed abroad,
in the strange country of genuine friendship, flagless,
unconstitutional, but made up of the best of what
there was: ourselves.
Free from “intended guile,” as my (also) friend
Robin (Robert Burns) wrote: the honest heart the “seat
and center in the breast,” the part, aye, that right or wrong,
through “crosses and losses,” survives all the rest, through
which, although we may never climb Parnassus, had its share,
my Sister, my Brother, of joy—-and a “swap o’ rhyming-ware
wi’ ane anither.”
Apollonian Dick, Dionysian Sarah!
Dick talking, talking, talking shop at the kitchen table; Dick with his mind, always alert
active mind, talking, gesturing with cracked, gnarled eczema-coated hands, wholly absorbed
in opinions, generously judgmental, and usually right, holding forth late into the night, hunched
above his wine, pontificating, praising the latest poet he’d discovered, the best ever (but one
who, perhaps, would be dead to the world of literature a year later and not asked back to Dick’s
conference), Richard passionately cogent while Sarah pranced about the kitchen in her panties
and one of Richard’s well-pressed white shirts, her slender hips, tight crotch, her body
as finely tuned as any theory Richard ever came up with regarding poetry. Sarah’s pixie precision,
her sprightliness, her free-wheeling Gypsy spirit: this exceptional artist whose role as mother
and wife overshadowed, obscured just how fine and prolific she’d been (charcoal, oil, pencil,
pastel, acrylic) all along—-a fact not discovered until she was dead and we framed all
that wondrous work she’d left behind in the studio basement of that house. Vital, adorable,
crazy Sarah, watched by equally crazy me while I listened to Dick’s poems about Granma Maudie,
The Golden Eagle Primitive Baptist Church, and Palestine, Illinois; Dick’s Apollonian protestant
soul, “wherever in damnation that is,” the center of “that town down there” the center of
a universe; and Sarah, that bright Gypsy moth dancing around us, the center of a universe herself,
prancing at the edge of an always dangerous flame, entrancing and entranced, all play to Dick’s
ardent, earnest quest for intellectual precision.
I didn’t even like Dick when I first met him in Hawaii—-as two young Hot Shots (or so we thought)
with recent MAs. Richard looked like Tab Hunter, was (I thought) all too Southern California,
Hollywood slick, and harbored highly conservative political views I found abhorrent. But he changed
(as did the length of his hair) and I changed and we all met somewhere in the middle—-where
the good stuff, the real life, seems to happen; although he continued to drive me nuts whenever
he strummed his baritone ukulele with that idiot grin on his face but never seemed to know
just when to change to a new chord.
I came to love both Dick and Sarah equally
and when they died, I died too—-for days, for months,
for six years. I have just now returned from the land
of the dead to live again, the richer none the less
for having known and loved them.
Dick knew my moods—
my black and bitter moods or sudden euphoria, inside
and out, and put up with all of them. Petulant at times,
Sarah was less patient, strenuously objecting to my
religious “flights,” thinking them cowardly. Richard,
at times, for all his self-assured loquacity, could
turn dark, dark, dark, descend to despair, a three o’clock
in the morning nihilist. No sense to anything,
the mind--which he prized so highly--a dead-end street,
while pixie Sarah pranced around the kitchen in her panties
and white male shirt, and I tried to think, and not think,
Absent-minded Dick and frequently flighty Sarah:
neither gifted with a sense of direction. Finding the house
of a new acquaintance, even with a carefully conceived
and drawn map, was always an adventure—-a futile excursion
worthy of the Keystone Cops.
After Sarah died, Dick and I hauled furniture, appliances, and her paintings
to San Miguel de Allende, to the home (a mansion really, a museum built to honor
her work) she never got to see completed, or live in. We had five flat tires—-
what we came to call “the Db trip”—-and Richard left his keys to the car sitting
on its roof while we rummaged, or two hours, through the home of his friends
with whom we stayed in Tucson, Arizona. Exhausted, fed up, outside, I accidentally
placed my hand atop the car—-and there were the keys. Absent-minded, Richard
could be an “accident” like that at times.
Each night, from El Paso to San Miquel, I read
passages from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—-
how those two studs, Dean and Sal, dreamed repeatedly
of beltfuls of girls, and occasionally found them,
going goofbag together with everybody sweet
and fine and agreeable (those “smiles of tender
dotage”); yet having been hassled by border cops
who made Dick unload all of the electronic devices
in his trailer (to check out the serial numbers for theft),
Dick threw his back out in the process (I suffer from
vertigo, a balance disorder), and we hobbled out
each morning to the car, two infirm gentlemen
--each sixty-two years of age--barely able to open
the doors of their respective sides: no Dean, no Sal;
no Mexican girl named Terry to leave behind
in the vineyards. The second-to-last flat tire
nearly cost us our lives. Just outside of Zacatecas,
a rock dislodged from a truck in front of us
skipped beneath our car and insanely sliced
the rear right tire, as if with a machete. Semis
had passed us on that two lane highway all
morning, but there were none—-thank God—-
at the moment the tire blew and we swerved
all over the road. We didn’t die that day--but
Dick would later.
We used to talk a lot about Keats and it was Keats who thought it best
“to remain aloof from people,” to like their good parts without being
eternally taken by or tricked with the dull process of their every day lives.
We succumbed to both, absorbed completely in our “good parts,” our best parts,
the poetry of friendship, the friendship of poetry; yet grossly, absurdly,
beautifully submerged as well in the dull process of living, until—-
for you two—-that process stopped. And for me, for six years,
everything else stopped as well.
The endless winter of your absence,
(and I’m just barely doing so)
to stay ahead of all parting, to put
life of song. A shattered cup
where all things begin, because I am
is ever used-up. I have little more to add
We are what we are because of
I will not ask for forgiveness now.
When she was about to die, why
What I want heaven to be
on me forever, but my soul
as light as any hint of or rumor
riffling white waves, a tide
But touch would be nice again,
your presence as heavy or light
I am working on it, steadily, but feel
No work of art or poetry survives, really,
When I touch it now
We never set out to be friends. It just happened.
Like Rilke’s Buddha in glory, we are the presence
Sections 13 and 14 of “Homage to Dick and Sarah Maxwell” appeared in Waverley Writers Anniversary Book: Celebrating
25 Years of Community and Poetry 1981-2005 (published by The Waverley Writers, Palo Alto, California, 2007)