Saturday, August 05, 2006

In winter 1947, my father, who had just turned 20, crashed a Cessna whose wings had iced up near The Dalles, Oregon, while smuggling alcohol from Portland to the “dry county” where we all lived in Southeastern Washington. He walked away from the wreckage, albeit with a broken back that kept him in the hospital for a few months.

In August 1965, while working as an electrician at a paper recycling plant in Charleston, South Carolina, he went into a utility building at the facility & flicked on a switch, not realizing that there was a gas leak inside. The ensuing explosion melted the pipes in the building. Again, my father walked to the ambulance, tho with third degree burns over 80 percent of his body. He lived for another eight days before his kidneys refused to process the poisons associated with all that burned flesh & he died. He was 38 and had been married three times, starting a family with each. Although I didn’t know it at the time, not having seen my dad at all since I was ten & then less than a half dozen times over the previous seven years, his death came on the tenth birthday of my half-sister Nancy.

Jack Spicer also died that week, just 40. Poets, like rock musicians & revolutionaries, have a rep for not living all that long. Over the years, I’ve gradually ticked off all the major poets who have had shorter lives than mine, a list that now includes Shakespeare (52 years old when he died), Dante (56), Chaucer (57) & Charles Olson (59). For me, tho, the real marker of age came some time back, in April of 1985, when I had thus outlived my own father.

So today I’m 60. I’ve been lucky. When my father was in the hospital with his broken back, I had a bad case of pneumonia, so bad according to my mother (I was all of six months old at the time & have no memory of this whatsoever) that the doctor had filled out a death certificate, leaving only the time of death blank. Fortunately, penicillin saved my life. That was just the first of a number of worst-case-scenario “could have beens” that I somehow sidestepped. Even in the past decade, the Department of Energy flew me to Seattle just to check out my thyroid – I was a “down-wind” baby back in the good old days when the Hanford Nuclear Reactor (the facility that built the bomb dropped on Nagasaki) took care of radioactive waste by putting it into steel drums buried next to the Columbia River. I made it through that one too.

I really don’t have a sense of myself being “old,” tho my twins may tell you I’m ancient & my knees might agree. I’ve been fortunate to finish the first three stages of my lifework – The Age of Huts, Tjanting and The Alphabet – and I hope in the next couple of years to have all in print at the same time, including the first complete version of The Age of Huts. I’ve come to understand that getting your work in print is one challenge – keeping it in print is a difficulty of a whole other level. Here too, I’ve been lucky & I know it.

Universe is getting started nicely, tho I can’t quite imagine how I’ll live long enough to finish it – the plan is for 360 booklength poems. So I’m building that eventuality into the form, or trying to. Or kidding myself that I can. In any event, the road ahead is clear. I have a great family. I enjoy my work. My health is not bad.I never saw anyone put this circumstance, or ones much like it, better than Bob Creeley: Onward!