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Homage to Dick and Sarah Maxwell

June 15, 2003


Two years ago this day Dick Maxwell died.
I am no Dante. Mourning Beatrice
“on that day that fulfilled the year”
since she seized eternal life (having been
made a “citizen” there in his eyes),
he drew the resemblance of an angel,
telling those who observed, “Another
was with me.” Dante wept when they left,
tossed off a sonnet to the Lady of All
Great Memories, set aside his sighs
(“The sickness only hidden grief can bring”)
and made the acquaintance of another
(her gaze full of pity) “young and beautiful
lady” he would later pass off as allegory.

I have yet to make the acquaintance
of another Richard Maxwell—-my irreplaceable friend.

I have a photograph of Dick straddling
an uneven white brick wall in Mexico.
He’s playing his alto saxophone, its bell
a shimmering gold horn, a torch of hope, his
left hand perched atop the keys. He’s
dressed in denim trousers and one of those
loose crinkled cotton shirts he loved
so much (this man whose clothing resisted
wrinkles the way others seem to court them),
eyes closed behind his glasses, hair
neatly parted. Another uneven wall,
this one brilliant turquoise, serves as
backdrop in San Miguel de Allende,
Dick’s adopted home ... and Sarah’s.


Given a year
to live (“inoperative lung cancer”) she
extended the term by six months, living
in San Miquel, building a studio there,
one in which to make art, building
a home near Presa de la Colonia where
they planted 600 trees: a palace,
a veritable museum in which she could
house her wondrous paintings
reflecting the streets, the walls, the sky—-
all the fine colors (earth brown, ochre,
copper, salmon, sand white, pale blue,
burnt umber, red) of Callijon del Pueblito,
where they also lived.

The Healer said
the cancer had vanished, a miracle
(and one that Sarah bought, believed in)
but her lungs were quiet only for lack
of breath, had already succumbed
to death, as she would, one week later.

Allusions to Dante will not do here, they will
not serve well in this case. I prefer
Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “I am not
resigned to the shutting away of loving
hearts in the hard ground.” Dick and Sarah’s
ashes live together, side by side beside
the home, the museum, “Casa Sarita,”
she never saw completed. Millay felt
“the beautiful, the tender, the kind ... the intelligent,
the witty, the brave” might well go quietly,
gently, but she would never approve, or
find herself “resigned.”

I have yet to make the acquaintance
of another Sarah Maxwell—-my imperishable friend.

Sarah went slow, at a pace, extended,
she commanded, in command of our grief
at the end, sucking on air she could no longer
command, petulant (as she could be), yet
radiant in her strength for our sake.
Richard went fast. A massive heart attack,
having just been given “a clean bill of health”
following a not as complete as he should have
commanded physical at Stanford.

“I am not resolved.”



They do not float, these ghosts.
They have set up house in my head.
I have built a loft for them there.
I live with the resident dead

from whose lives there is no cure,
nor should there be; they shall reside
with me forever—-for such is love.
I am fickle. I am untrustworthy, but

not with these ghosts who do not float
but sit with me, late into the night,
at some eternal kitchen table, just as they
once did, before departing--

from what? This life, such as it is;
but not from me, not ever.



Sarah and I were the certified crazies.
Betty and Dick were the licensed sane.
They might as well have shoved us
into a cold bed in a padded cell
and closed the door on us, forever, yet
we never slept together, thank God—-
even though I loved her as a wife,
even though I loved Dick as a wife,
even though I loved Betty, my wife,
as a wife (thank God again): the sane one,
always (Richard could get a little crazy
on occasion, but not often, and seldom
without literary precedent). And so
we made our way through all those years.
I wonder what percentage of humankind
has ever experienced such a miraculous
friendship. There is nothing (except
sleeping together, in pairs) we did not do

We attended a full season at the San Francisco Opera—-ten operas, sometimes more—-each
season, each fall. And we saw them all, the great ones: Domingo, Pavarotti, Price, Horn,
Sutherland, Sills, Bjorling, Te Kanawa, Caballe. We also heard and saw our share of lemons,
overwrought drama, oversung, but we celebrated it all in our own way, at the season’s end—-
lauded, extolled, eulogized with appropriate absurdity, launching The Florence Foster Jenkins
Memorial Folderol, an evening, an event we undertook in homage to that remarkable
woman devoid of any talent whatsoever—-a woman who took voice lessons throughout her life
but, like us, never found a single note on pitch, for all her efforts, but persisted, paying
Julliard students to attend her Carnegie Hall concerts. Unlike us, she was rich and could afford
a public display of her incompetence, much to the amusement and delight of others.

We confined our musical ineptitude to living rooms,
our own, and amused ourselves all night, laughing
so hard our stomachs hurt in the morning,
our heads distraught by customary hangovers.
Richard was memorable as Nadir, the fisherman,
in “The Pearl Fishers,” wearing a wet suit,
huge floppy rubber fins, carrying a rod
and reel, a snorkel in his mouth, attached
to goggles that covered his eyes as he
attempted to sing, unsuccessfully, “Je crois
entendre encore.”

Sarah was spectacular
in “Daphne,” by Richard Srauss, having designed
and implemented a dress which, at the appropriate
moment, just as she was on the verge of being
seized by Apollo, she shed (the seams loosely
stitched), blossomed as a full-grown laurel tree,
an eye-popping sight, the green leaves aflame
with sudden exposure, the trunk of her body
an arboreal delight to behold as the dress slid to the floor.

Betty was astonishing as Madame Butterfly:
chop sticks protruding from her hair, a wig
as black as the mud snail’s bowels, chic
in her kimono of silken liquidity, shuffling
shyly, coyly on her geta or wooden clogs; yet
for all the verisimilitude, pretty, picturesque
as a woodcut by Utamaro, still not able to sing
a single note of “un bel di vedremo” on key.

My favorite role was that of Boris Godunov,
because I got to die twice, having mistimed
the bells I recorded to go off at the moment
of my demise. “Prestitye menye, prestitye,”
I said as I slid from my throne and fell
to the floor, on cue, I thought, but no, too
early; so I had to get up, resume my seat, then fall
and die again. Betty served as my puzzled
but patient son and heir, Feodor, soon to be
Tsar unless I should rise and sit and fall
and wait to die a third time.


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—-
a miracle.

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.


Gospel Song

“Ain’t no good thing ever dies”.
Tom Waits

When I walk to that world
where I put life behind me;
when I walk to that rhythm
more slow.

When I move to the friends
who will always remind me:
you can take it with you
when you go.

And when I see them once again
not as they were long ago,
but as they are now,
in splendor beyond them,
I will join them and never let go.


'“Long since, this world’s thorny ways
Had numbered out my weary days
Had it not been for you!”
Robert Burns

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,
about God.
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,
of you not being here, is
as Rilke said, that which
wintering through it if you can

(and I’m just barely doing so)
the only way the heart survives.
I will forever be dead in you,
not having been smart enough

to stay ahead of all parting, to put
it behind me, as if it had already
occurred (and who the hell can foresee
and do that?)—-to arise in the seamless

life of song. A shattered cup
with its tinnitus ring intact? To just BE?
Be what? I’d rather forget all that shit
about the “great void”

where all things begin, because I am
not ready nor ever will be
for such immaculate assent.
No accounts are ever cancelled. Nothing

is ever used-up. I have little more to add
myself to than you, as I always did,
as you added yourselves to me, always,
when we were fully alive.


We are what we are because of
not in spite of our completeness.
Even this remarkable friendship was,
on more than one occasion, far
from perfect. Envy, vanity, ambition,
paranoia, spite, competition.
I remember the terrible fight when
Dick discredited my friend Paul Oehler’s
poetry and I lashed back by saying
that he, Dick, would never be half
the poet Paul was, the cruelest thing
I could think to say. Sarah, rightly,
never forgave me, calling off
the friendship for a time.

I will not ask for forgiveness now.
We are what we are. We had what
we had, because of not in spite of
our completeness. At times now the two
of them seem to make up some
sort of hermaphroditic Virgil
for me, a guide who sees me through
all those circles of Hell I can be
to myself, and others—-and I am
grateful for their company.
My speechless guides now, not
a natural condition for Dick,
nor for occasionally chatterbox
Sarah, who could also talk with
the simple silence of a smile.

When she was about to die, why
did I just stand there, my eyes
locked to hers as she sucked on that
terrible respirator--which was all that she
had left by way of breath? Why did I not
fall to my knees, embrace her knees,
take her body about to depart this life
in my arms and squeeze like God’s own hell
and kiss her over and over and over?!
Her forehead, hair, her dying if not
already dead lips and breath?!

do we just stand there, tears in our eyes,
hands folded in front of us like some
sullen altar boy at prayer? Why did I not
throw myself upon her and scream
and curse this unfairness?

With Dick I didn’t even have a chance
or prayer to say goodbye. Shock, then hope,
then hope extinguished came from
phone calls from afar, the last from Mexico
when he was already dead, and I
was left standing, once again,
to receive the news, passively,
nothing but numb dread and sorrow
in mind and heart.!


What I want heaven to be
is exactly what I feel just now:
the full presence of friends I love,
imperishable, bearing down

on me forever, but my soul
strong enough to take it.
Bearing down but not really anywhere
(your place or mine?), the effect

as light as any hint of or rumor
of angels: varied as the ocean’s
range of green and blue, steady
as the sand it rinses constantly,

riffling white waves, a tide
of no determined hour, and
miracle of miracles: we may not
even need to talk! Or touch!

But touch would be nice again,
if only as light as the sound
of angels. Bear down on me,
my friends, please—-

your presence as heavy or light
as heaven allows, but bear down
on me: your love beyond repair,
however these things are done in heaven.


I am working on it, steadily, but feel
I will never again find friends such as these.
I loved Dick as I loved Sarah
as they loved Betty and I love
Betty and

God we dug deep,
God, we dug deep!

No work of art or poetry survives, really,
the way a masterpiece such as
friendship can, fully within the heart,
not placed to be referred to
on occasion in a book or flat on
museum walls. You are always
before my eyes: the sight of you both
coming up our front walk toward
the house, bearing the hard-carved
wooden rain snake, as a gift, that I
could not afford to buy and bring
back home from Mexico.

When I touch it now
the rain falls O so gently, lightly as the touch
of your greeting that day, and I am resolved,
somewhat (and not resolved) to loss.

We never set out to be friends. It just happened.
It just was. We evolved
as naturally as winter into spring, those seasons
we celebrated each year, together,
and we remained, and shall remain.

Like Rilke’s Buddha in glory, we are the presence
that shall be, “when all the stars are dead.”


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)

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