David Rigsbee – A Wedding and the Death of Poets

David Rigsbee LE P&W Jan 2022

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A Wedding and the Death of Poets – Guest Editorial by David Rigsbee.

DR, Daphne Athas, Jill Bullitt, Ron Bayes 2012
David Rigsbee, novelist Daphne Athas, painter Jill Bullitt, and Ron Bayes. Ron had fallen in the parking lot and bumped his head. 2012

On December 12, two days after what would have been my teacher Carolyn Kizer’s 96th birthday, and six days before my daughter’s wedding, I received word of the death of Ron Bayes, a poet not well known in the world, but a poet of immense influence to a few.

One recalls Milton’s subtle phrase, “fit though few.” Ron, a dyed-in-the-wool Poundian, had transplanted himself from Oregon to the middle of nowhere, North Carolina, a.k.a., Laurinburg and dinky St. Andrews Presbyterian College, where he and his students embraced the paideuma and its avatars, the Black Mountain poets. Ron’s tiny house was often aswirl with guests as his enthusiasms unfolded, and during my visits there from my base in Chapel Hill, I met such writer luminaries as the jovial Jonathan Williams, poet and founder of The Jargon Society, Joel Oppenheimer, poet and long time contributor to The Village Voice, and the inimitable Charleen Swansea, editor and memoirist, who had spent her weekends as a student at Meredith College in Raleigh, hitchhiking her way to Washington to sit in the presence of Ezra Pound, who held court at St. Elizabeth’s hospital. Charleen was later the star of Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March, in which role she was called “the greatest documentary character of all time.”

Visiting Ron, one was likely to find there as well the likes of Edward Dorn, Robert Creeley, or Pound’s daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz. There was also his close friend Shelby Stephenson, a beloved figure in southern poetry, whose mellifluously southern baritone became familiar throughout the state and the avuncular, bow-tied Sam Ragan, a famed journalist, poet, and advocate for the arts, who charmed Adlai Stevenson’s sister Buffie to donate and endow her mansion in Southern Pines into a literary retreat. Sam was also pleased for us all to know that his college sweetheart had been the then undiscovered Ava Gardner.

In 1986-87, the year I taught at St. Andrews, Ron was eager to introduce me to Wallace Fowlie, the eminent French scholar and translator of Rimbaud, who taught at Duke. Wallace had enjoyed a bump in celebrity when he disclosed that he had been in correspondence with Jim Morrison of The Doors just before Morrison’s death. Morrison had felt inspired in his lyrics by the example of Arthur Rimbaud, and he sought Wallace’s advice on matters of interpretation.

Duke University Press, ever striving to be au courant, duly published the correspondence with Wallace’s commentary, and Ron declared a Wallace Fowlie Day at St. Andrews, complete with class visits, a lecture, a splashy party, and “Light My Fire” on repeat, blaring from the bell tower. Ron loved such moments. For all the increasingly cryptic, Cantos-like moments in his later poems, he was in his soul a social man, even a civic man, with plainly generous instincts. Meanwhile, on the wall of his study was a framed paper napkin that read, “Dear Ron, Sorry about last night! —Tennessee Williams.” Ron professed not to recall the incident to which it referred. Compact and twinkle-eyed, he made an immersive universe where none was before and peopled it with colorful figures who must have felt they were on the verge of something great.

This was Ron’s mission, to bring poetry into midst of everyday life, and he made a kind of affectionate alliance with Kizer, who was herself a transplanted Northwesterner, teaching creative writing at UNC. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing in those years, and Ron became a friend and supporter, who published early work of mine in The St. Andrews Review, brought out a collection of my longer poems in the 1990s, handed out several big-sounding awards (The Pound Prize and the Sam Ragan Award), even hired me to teach with him and run the St. Andrews Press for a year in the 1980s.

He arranged for my wife Jill, a deeply engaging painter, to have a one-man show in the 2000s. Ron could be cryptic, and his allegiances were not always coherent (e.g., he was fanatical about Mishima), but you understood there was substance there, loyalty and a sense of purpose.

When my daughter Makaiya announced her intention to get married, she also asked me to officiate, and I agreed. I went online and got myself ordinated by the Universal Life Church, joining a list of such nonce pastors as Lady Gaga and Conan O’Brien.

David Wagoner and Carolyn Kizer, ca. 1960.
David Wagoner and Carolyn Kizer, ca. 1960.

She and her fiancé, Armando, had wanted a ceremony solemnized by familiar lines from poets, so I set about writing a short sermon that quoted bits from Anne Bradstreet, Robert Burns, Shakespeare, Spenser, Shelley, Kizer, Kenneth Koch, Nikki Giovanni, and Jack Gilbert, by way of solemnizing the nuptials. It was eclectic, so say the least. But I also felt Ron’s spirit hovering. He had written,

“…clocks stop when the dead love
or want to touch us; when the dead love
the living and when we reciprocate.
And sometimes though such doors
in spite of our desire, loved ones
insist on entering.”

We learned, alas, the next day that poet David Wagoner had died. David had gone from a middle-class upbringing in Chicago out to Seattle to study with Theodore Roethke at the University of Washington, where his classmates included Richard Hugo, James Wright, Jack Gilbert, and Carolyn Kizer, with whom he was to become romantically involved. When I arranged a reading for Kizer and Wagoner in 2006 on the publication of David Lehman’s Oxford Book of American Poetry, it was the first time they had met in years.

It was also one of Kizer’s last readings. David (Wagoner, not Lehman) had also broken Kizer’s heart half a century before by spurning her for a woman Carolyn dismissed as merely ordinary, certainly not fit for someone of his artistic brilliance. The same year of the reading, I had attended a series of workshops taught by David and could sense the commitment with which he channeled Roethkean aesthetics. He would say things like, “Much contemporary poetry consists of a monotone voice. But the voice of the poet has the same range as that of the singer. The origins are the same: there is tempo, rhythm, timbre, register, pitch, volume—all suggested by the speaking voice. There is not only music, but dance, storytelling, the campfire. There is the shaman’s magic in language that brought people to and back from the dead.” Technically, he was a master, and I considered him the most trained and meticulous of American nature poets.

But he was more than an inspired botanist, he had learned to sing of his own strangeness:

…I had loved you too, but from so far away
Through so much hesitation, so much restraint
And disbelief across our strict profession
Of words, our unwritten law (the years,
The years), I couldn’t say your name to myself
By daylight or think of you
As more than a faint hope from a different life
Now left and lost.
(“In a Garden”)

He also said, “It helps to be awful.” David continued to teach well into his eighties and felt the need to step up to the competition, whoever it was, even though he had been elected Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He always made sure, for example, that departmental newsletters listed his latest publications, even those buried in obscure journals. David was the great love of my daughter’s grandmother, and she knew it. As the wedding party packed and drove off from the small hotel on the Pacific Ocean, where roosters and bald eagles found common geography, David had joined Ron in my mind and in death.

Naomi Lazard in later life.
Naomi Lazard in later life.

The very next day, we learned that poet Naomi Lazard had died. Naomi had been my colleague at Hamilton/Kirkland in the early ‘70s, when I was an instructor in creative writing. Naomi was famous for being Bill Knott’s muse (The Naomi Poems), although the two were never an item. I once asked her about this, given the esteem in which he held her. “I couldn’t,” she said. “He smells funny.” ”Give him a nice bar of soap,” I suggested. “It won’t wash off,” she countered. So much for the radiant muse.

Naomi was frighteningly literal and never let the obvious get away with anything. I was putting together my first manuscript for publication, and Naomi would come over regularly to my duplex, sit on the sofa with me and scrutinize every word laid out on the coffee table. She was brutal without meaning to be. If I wrote, “I put the book on the table,” she would squint and turn to me: “What do you mean when you say the table?” It was good training, but tough. Years later I was writing a master’s thesis on Wittgenstein, and I couldn’t help but think of her, although I am sure she never had the patience to read him.

Naomi was commuting up to Clinton from her apartment in Chelsea in New York, a punishing commute even for her Lancia sports car, a gift from her faraway Italian boyfriend, himself a Senator and Communist. Naomi came from a working class Jewish background in Philadelphia. Just like the character in Annie Hall, she could say confidently that she was once a great beauty.

Moreover, she happened to marry into the Lazard family of global financiers, only to bolt when her husband disapproved of her writing poems. In this, she mirrored the experience of Kizer, who likewise married into wealth but divorced her way out, in part as a protest to a similar paternalism. When I introduced them, they became friends on the spot and even traveled together to Mexico. Naomi was working on a remarkable collection of poems that came to be called Ordinances. While reading Cavafy and the European Surrealists, she came upon a voice that every readers knows, that every human knows: the voice of bureaucracy. You can hear it immediately in “Ordinance at the Level Crossing” which begins:

Jumping the track is forbidden;
the penalty for offenders is death.
You are permitted
to live beside the track,
work at your trade,
take trips, raise your family—
but always on this side.

Our conversations continued over the years, and by the time she retired to a home in Long Island, where she lived with her cats, she had given up poetry for screen-writing, at which she had no success. But she impressed herself on everyone whom she encountered. Jordan Smith remembers her practical kindness when he was a first-year student poet at Hamilton, taking him to buy groceries as a cure for depression.

She was able to combine simplicity and what I took to be a kind of grandeur. I once asked her why she didn’t ask her ex-husband for a more liberal alimony, and she answered that she didn’t want to have to deal with the temptations that money brought in its wake. She settled for a modest apartment and just enough monthly to pay rent and buy groceries. Fair enough, I thought. I remembered her delight in meeting Makaiya as a little girl in Raleigh. Naomi, who doted on her only niece, told me that she was considering moving south both to be near her Amanda and to be neighbors with us, namely my wife Jill, and our daughter, who was now, more than a quarter of a century later, getting married on the Pacific coast, just as Naomi on the opposite coast was making her earth departure.

Once she invited me to visit her in New York. Bill Knott was going to be there. I didn’t know what to expect. Knott looked up and said, “I’ve heard of you.” He had arrived at her apartment with a knit bag in which was his food supply: a can of Crisco and a jar of powdered Lipton tea. I remembered the story she told about being with her long-distance partner in Italy and going out to eat. The door opened, she said, and in walked, with entourage, Burt Lancaster with his sweating forehead and klieg-like smile. “He was majestic!” she said. “A god!” News of her death as the wedding party was departing hit me hard.

Ron Bayes and Rigsbee, St. Andrews Press office, mid-1980s.
Ron Bayes and Rigsbee, St. Andrews Press office, mid-1980s.

Brodsky, who succinctly defined a cliché as something you’d heard twice, offered his own cliché in pointing out on numerous occasions that the phrase “the death of the poet” seemed more fitting than “the life of the poet.” I would add that the multiple deaths of poets reminds me of something David Wagoner said, “Collective unconsciousness is like aspen roots: separate above, connected below.” I married my daughter and son-in-law in the name of poetry and a lot of other things, including love.. There is no doubt it was sacramental, even as my beloved ex had the last word: “Everyone is leaving.”

© David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is an American poet, critic and translator who has an immense body of published work behind him. Not Alone in my Dancing – Essays and Reviews (2016), This Much I Can Tell You ( 2017), School of the Americas (2012) and The Pilot House (2011), all published by Black Lawrence Press, are but a sample. Forthcoming in the fall is his complete translation of Dante’s Paradiso from Salmon Poetry, and MAGA Sonnets by Donald Trump from Main Street Rag, a series of 85 quotations from Trump’s speeches and interviews bundled up in sonnet form (political satire and grimly humorous).

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