Jack Powers, Stone Soup, and Me
The ferry chugged across Sydney Harbour; I looked at the Opera House like I do every day. This time all I saw was the big glassy sheen of the John Hancock Tower in Copley Square; all I heard was a million conversations with someone a million years ago; welling up behind it were the sights and sounds of Green Street Grill, TT the Bears, a small dark cramped cluttered paradisaical apartment on Joy Street, on Beacon Hill, in Boston Massachusetts. A few hours before, I'd learned that Jack Powers, maybe the most selfless promoter of poetry ever, my mentor, biggest advocate and encourager, my friend – a friend with whom I hadn't spoken since 1999 – had died. And eleven years' worth of unsent letters, unmade phone calls I'd spent almost weekly imagining and composing to him explaining and begging his forgiveness, trying to get back in touch, would never get sent.
Why'd I drop away? Short answer: cowardice, avoidance. Long(er) answer: our last go-round in Boston, neither of us were in good places at the time. I'd just returned from San Francisco, still shattered by losing my partner Todd to AIDS four years previously, and a wreck from the resultant self-destructive bender I'd spiralled into the last year or so in SF, abetted by a few chemically-equipped characters in the implosion as only self-indulgent denizens of that town can abet. I was emotional shrapnel, crawling back Boston-ward to the one place I felt safe, the one place where I thought I could pull myself together and maybe write and create again. Unfortunately Jack too was having a rough time. So as we conspired to kick-start Stone Soup back to its best, I felt more like a potentially bad influence as he also strove to get his life together. And, cravenly, a few sights of him in near-meltdown, being particularly verbally cruel to some people near and dear to him, had me with my ever-constant fear of confrontation stymied. Unable to tell him how badly I felt, unable to stick around and try to help him pull out of his shadows, I just vanished. A wimpy, cowardly end to a friendship I should have … well, shoulda, coulda, woulda. It's probably self-deception just to make myself feel slightly better, but I swear on the bus ferry-ward, as I kept trying to avoid a crying jag, as I thought how I wished I would have had the balls to get in touch and apologise, I heard Jack's voice in my head saying in that sad calm tone he could get, “well, y'know, we all do what we do. Just woulda been nice to have had those years we didn't get, y'know?” Of course, I also heard, as I vacillated back and forth as to whether I should get off the bus, transfer to another, and go across the ANZAC Bridge, or on a sad day like this stay calm, go slow, take a ferry ride and clear my head a bit, his voice take on that bemused frustrated tint I heard so often and sigh “geez, will ya just take the ferry? Gyawwd, poets.” So, there might be argument for some actual contact from beyond. And maybe somewhere Jack was absolving me. But still, I can't ever forgive myself for the shitty way I disappeared from his life after all he'd done for me.
I first met Jack in 1984 (mayyybe 85?). I'd moved to Boston the year before, not yet Yuri, just a bucolic escapee baby Riq the poet who spelled his name funny and met friend-of-friends (who'd become a friend in his own right by then) Ryk McIntyre. Once we got over meeting another same-first-named poet who spelled his name funny (“you bastard! Oh … all right”), we got along swell, and he showed me the ropes of Boston's (non-university-centered) poetry scene. He dragged me all the way from my South End (in the last days before the South End became totally gentrified) apartment to Cambridge, down some side street off the rather dicey Central Square, and into a restaurant/pub called Green Street Grill (or Charlie's Tap, as the bar area was called … both were used). Up a step or two past the bar, in a separate room, a varied crowd sat waiting for the show to begin. It was Stone Soup Poetry, open mike plus two featured readers. I forget if I read that first night, but I forever recall the emcee/organizer standing bushy-haired, bearded, bardic and encouraging anyone to sign up: “It's Stone Soup – inclusive, not exclusive” - little knowing it was a phrase I was to hear a lot over the next 5-6 years.
Slowly over the weeks I started to participate as well as listen, becoming a regular attendee, eventually leading to Jack offering a Ryk/Riq dual feature which we of course (as only 20something cocksures convinced we were on the verge of conquering the entire world could do) turned into a music/poetry review as “The Anti-Matter Boys”. One wonderful side-effect of not
Self-absorbed as I was, I remember very little of that first wave of Stone Soup in my life. I knew Jack as the organizer, but wasn't close to him. Then, in early 1987, between a huge case of writer's block and involvement singing with a real live rock and roll band, I drifted out of Stone Soup's orbit for a year or so. When you're in your early 20s, a year feels like it encompasses a decade – so, a decade (year) later, in mid-1988, with the band boredly splitting up, and a job in the Boston Public Library fueling a steady diet of whatever I was looking to read that was encouraging me to think in poemy terms again, I started creeping back to Green Street and Charlie's Tap, and its every-Monday-night Stone Soup. Heck, my brain was even starting to tickle with bits of new poems – if I could work them up to the more ambitious standards I was setting for myself, maybe I'd risk reading them. After a whole year, I was a little unsure – and, in that year, it seemed the calibre of poets swarming to Stone Soup had made a quantum leap too. The change in the energy from 1986 to that point in 1988 was noticeable to me. Faces in the crowd, names (as I slowly learned them) would excite me as I anticipated hearing what they'd read that night. As much as all the poets' bios and writings through history I was absorbing in my library job, these new faces in a Cambridge side street restaurant too were challenging me to step up a notch. And I could see it in Jack Powers' face, too – an enjoyment, a confidence, a pride in what poetry Boston could create. He was happily conducting this interesting scene, letting each instrument in its anarchic symphony shine.
So if this memoir of Jack segues into a memoir of Stone Soup in its greatest moments, that's a tribute to Jack. He was the conductor of song. Of electricity. Of all that energy. So, to merge the two is the best of tributes, no? And as a self-absorbed egotistical little poet, if the lens comes through my eyes, well, it is my fault, and more tribute to Jack that he smiled and let it slide.
My decades-(and chemicals)-shattered memory fogs; what I recall is, slowly sharing the first efforts of my new stuff early on, and a wonderful taxi cab driver (and not by-the-way really great poet) Joe Gleason, who read there often and entranced me, walking up to me and saying something to the extent of “hey, good poetry; I can really hear the Frank O'Hara influence in a good way”. To which I of course nodded (“O'Hara, yes yes yes” … then scurried to the shelves of my workplace next day to discover the works of Frank O'Hara and immediately shove him into my pantheon). But more than my desperate poetic dodge was the (beer-inspired) moment that I looked at him and said: “you know, I feel sort of bad reading here. I'd read here a lot about a year ago and acted like a total schmuck. I feel like I ought to apologize to a lot of people.” To which Joe smirked (he always smirked a lot) and said something benedictive like “hey, it's a poetry series, probably the least of sins committed here.” Still – I felt like I wanted to make up for my post-adolescent egomania of a year (decade!) before. While I hadn't had much interaction with Jack aside from asking for open-mike slots or the golden feature spots (!!), for once my fear and awkward social skills abandoned me. I approached Jack as he huddled with a clump of artistes in some odd artistic dealing, a byzantine juggling of egos and neuroses no doubt, waited my turn and said, “hey, Jack, sorry for being a creep,” (stealing a favourite term of abuse/affection from Jack himself) “ … look, you need help with anything here? I'd love to help out if I could.”
To the first bit of my tepid rant, he looked bewildered. To the second, his eyes lit up, and a blur of words came out. “Heythanksy'knowalwaysneedhelp,heymaybemonitorthesignupsheetnextweek” etc etc. Though the mighty mighty Julie Stone – one of the great saints of Stone Soup and Jack's life – had always been by Jack's side helping with filming, running things, spiritual support, there was always more to be done. Slowly, week by week, I found myself coasting into a supporting role – keeping an eye on the sign-up sheet, or watching the time (poets being both mad egotists and completely right-brain, few understood the concept of “please keep your open-mike spot to three-to-five minutes”).
And what poets there were! Usually, an open mike section at a poetry reading is a cause for alarm, terror, and flight to the farthest end of the bar. But for a brief shining moment, it seemed the factionalism that usually splinters poetry asunder melted away, and from 1988 through about 1990, poetry of all schools, all types, all levels of quality and style were bouncing off the walls and into poets' ears. Suddenly, somehow, every Monday night I found myself looking forward to a large portion of what I'd probably hear.
Sure, there were plenty of moments for have-I-shocked-you/look-I've-read-Bukowski adolescence, bad forced-rhyme political clichés, and “this next poem is called 'Clouds and Flowers'”, and such. But pound for pound, those 2 or 3 years would match any tightly pre-organised reading series I've ever seen in action. And it all boiled down to Jack's “inclusive, not exclusive” credo. Even personalities with whom he had long-standing mutual dislikes were guaranteed a spot, even a feature, if they asked. The arrogant, the experienced, the longtime friends had to wait their turn as the novice, the timid, and the fragmented-beaten-up-by-life stood on absolute equal footing.
And his faith in poetry itself paid off so well. So many people (speaking especially of myself) started off more miss than hit, or frightened and inaudible, or plain really, really bad, and with Jack nodding and thanking them after with utter sincerity went on to experiment and learn and grow as he made room for so many styles and influences. The number of poets I managed to sit with between sections of the evening, me furiously scribbling down books and writers to rush out and discover the next day, was a priceless benefit to me – as was Jack inviting me into his home, as a rotating circle of friends and poets began gathering at his Joy Street apartment after work every Monday to eat (usually his trademark tuna/pasta/tomato sauce feed-the-masses specialty), drink (poets!), and rush off in a caravan to Charlie's Tap.
Those few years with Jack and Stone Soup were, and will always be, the most wonderful stretch of creativity I ever experienced, socially and personally. At a distance now of twenty years, and with the pummelling I've given my short-term memory capacity over the intervening years, it's all a wild swirl, diverging episodic threads and fantastic little episodes all jumbled up. Where to start – what to write – no faith in its chronology; so much happened so quickly. History! Gossip! Poetic superstars! The forgotten and unsung!
Having spent his youth among the best of the Beat generation and caught the ear and friendship of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack with his indefatigable service to the poetic cause was well-known as the go-to person in Boston. Ginsberg swoops into town? The phone would ring and it was Jack organising housing, reading space, support (it was through Jack that I met Ginsberg in 1986, who liked the poems I slipped him enough to get me in print for the first time – I suspect my really cute date was the main entry point of conversation, as he also spent the evening asking repeatedly “well, take me home and fuck me!” … we didn't, but Ginsy's own devotion to poetry allowed him to overlook this and judge my work on its own). And Ginsberg would send others Jack's way too.
Dmitri Prigov, then head of the Moscow Poetry Society, arrived that way. Jack put him up, organised some readings, and even got him to Charlie's Tap. By this time I'd met my partner Todd Hawley, who had been a Russian Studies major and was thus indispensable for Jack, as Prigov's English wasn't very good. He had a son about my age, and bonded with me in a homesick sort of way as Todd translated us into a joking duel of impersonating what each other's language sounded like to the other who couldn't understand a word, as Jack laughed harder than I'd ever seen him laugh before (me to Prigov: “doshhhhhbrrrrrooovdo gikkabukka harkhhhhhhhbrooosha!” Prigov – pinching his nose to sound more nasal – to me: “Thhhhhhehhhhh thhhehhh thhhuhh theeehh!”).
Jack, in his role as Poet Protector of the Boston Realm, had also taken it upon himself to look after one very special charge. A few doors up Joy Street lived John Weiners, chemical-and-shock-treatment-shattered recluse remnant of the Beat generation, in a small apartment from which he almost never ventured. Jack would keep an eye on him, run errands for him, check in if no one had heard from him for a while. He told of several precarious climbs up the outside of the building after Weiners wouldn't answer his phone for days, wedging open a window and climbing in only to find John sitting there, turning to calmly say “oh, Jack … hi, how are you?”.
On a non-Monday, less-crowded evening, Jack might try to lure Weiners out into the world, or at least down Joy Street for dinner. My experience of this usually consisted of watching Jack dial the phone, wait and wait and sigh and wait, then suddenly speak swiftly into the receiver “John! Hey, Jack here. Was wondering if you wanted to swing by for JohnJohndon'thangupwaitaminnitJo …. aw, jeez.” This would repeat several times before Jack would sigh, “well, I tried.” Occasionally Weiners would shuffle down and upstairs to Jack's place, where he'd sit in the corner chair at the kitchen table, jabbering in a whisper, or saying nothing, eyes down or staring into the distance. Once I ran into Weiners at the Boston Library, where he'd spend his days looking for all the world like another sad homeless guy unless you knew he was one of the greatest poets of the mid/late 20th century, and I quietly re-introduced myself to him.
“Oh … yes, we met at Jack's, didn't we?” he said almost happily. “How is Jack?”
When I told Jack this, he was almost in tears. “John remembered you! And having dinner with us! This is great! He's starting to snap out of it!”
And indeed, over the years, Jack slowly encouraged John Weiners to come out more and more, and even organized several rare readings for him. Again, the at-all-cost devotion of Jack Powers to poets and not just poetry was limitless (and why wasn't I there for Jack at all cost? I ask myself accusingly. No excuse).
As Boston poetry came alive again in Jack's kitchen, a vague set of semi-regulars started to take shape at the pre-reading dinners. We started giving each other poetry challenges – basically just a topic or title – to bring a poem to the dinner table the next week. My favorite moment was when Joanna Nealon, at her turn to choose, said something that I missed and misheard.
“Joanna!” I gasped. “Did you just say 'Egyptian foreplay'? What a great title!”
She howled with laughter. “I did actually conquering the entire world is, the video of this event, which does exist somewhere, is not now an embarrassing internet viral video phenomenon. It's a testament to Jack's forbearance that he endured us (or perhaps had become so immune to poets-who-act-like-they're-rockstars that we were just par for the course).not say 'Egyptian foreplay', but I like that better. Yes! We all have to write a poem about Egyptian foreplay!”
And we did.
With a regular(-ish) cast of characters helping out now, Jack was able to start thinking about re-vitalising Stone Soup's other endeavours again. With his energies going to the readings, to other poets, and the social causes he unrepentantly supported and worked hard for (especially issues of the homeless around Boston), other old projects had fallen by the wayside. The kickstart to this was Todd, who as a college entrepreneurial prodigy (he'd started his own institution at this point, the International Space University, which now sits on its own campus in Strasbourg, France) was more than encouraging as Jack spoke about finishing the non-profit incorporation process for Stone Soup to become the Stone Soup Arts Trust. This was right up Todd's alley, and gave sage advice to Cyndi Mitchell who – as one of the more real-world competents among us – organised and nursed the paperwork through the system. Soup kitchens, expanded readings, even dreams of re-opening Jack's old bookstore loomed in Jack's plans. But the first step was a more basic dream that had gotten put aside when Jack was running the whole show alone.
“Let's start the press back up,” he said. “Too much good stuff is happening right now. Gotta get the word out.”
So, in 1989, Stone Soup Quarterly vol.1, no.1 came out in print. A year later, we decided to start up individual poets' chapbooks/small press books. We all naturally wanted Jack to have the honours of being the first, especially as he'd spent years “just not getting around” to sending City Lights Press a manuscript of poems as Ferlinghetti had been requesting/cajoling/demanding for at least a decade. As always, Jack would have none of that and wanted to give others the spotlight. The first volume of the Stone Soup Poets' Series, he told the editorial board one meeting amid red wine, beer, and his tuna pasta, ought to be … and he pointed to me. And so the only time my name appeared on a flat little spine (well, back when I was Riq Hospodar and not Yuri Hospodar, not that the latter has appeared on any spines) is all thanks to Jack Powers. I think it took three more individual volumes before we managed to bully him into being the publishee, and his Light From Stone saw the light of day.
And amid all this, the every-Monday readings went on. The aside-from-aforementioned tip of the iceberg to some of the wonderfulness going on near-weekly (and a tip of the hat to the many friends & poets I might not mention as I'm writing fast and shell-shocked), many of whom coasted into Jack's kitchen and lingered for longer or shorter durations: Deb Oestreicher; Ellen Stone (whose poetry made me absolutely swoon) (who unfortunately shared an exact name with a better-known fellow New England poet and so was cause/victim of occasional reading confusion); Brother Blue and his moving, mad improvisations; Billy Barnum; Charlie Shively; Raphael DeGruttola and his haiku-ing friends (sorry for the sarcastic haiku snarks, Raphael – I was young and stupid); the New Hampshire triumverate of Peter Kidd (with his short poems like ancient Chinese aphorisms), Bill Kemmett, and W.E. (Wally) Butts (who I now hear is the Poet Laureate of New Hampshire – go Wally!) (the trio of them were wonderful, if with a tendency to be a tripartite Statler & Waldorf and sit as far from the stage as possible, chuckling at the more clownish or just plain bad poets); Glenn Stout and Sean Heaney, two compatriots from the Boston Public Library who I hadn't known were poets til they showed up at Stone Soup, and bonded better with; others others others whose names I may come back and fill in if I don't get wound up in the rest of all this.
A few of the many odd and (mostly) treasured moments:
The ethereal, majestic-voiced Carol Weston doing a feature slot, then opening up a box and telling us that day was also the birthday of a poet she'd studied under in England “and I want us all to have a piece of cake in honour of … oh … ohhh … oh oh oh dear, I'd forgotten it was an ice cream cake, it's all melted! I'm so sorry, everyone , I ...I ...” … and everyone loved Carol and to console her went to the bar & gathered spoons and we all had goopy spoonfuls of melted ice cream cake with her by the stage.
Jack somehow getting Kerouac's first wife (I believe) to come speak, perhaps hawking a recently-published memoir, and the pleading “look, I know, but just this once don't cause a scene” look he cast me as she said from stage “ask me! Ask me anything … I knew them all …. Allen Ginsberg before all that 'gay' shit ...”, those being the peak days of ACT UP, Queer Nation, and my fire-breathing little queer radical self.
A little coterie of wanna-be two-fisted hard guy poets (i.e. kids who were in their first year at college away from home and had had their first beer) who once said loudly at the table next to me how much better Bukowski was than “any of the crap going on here”, leading me to call Bukowski a cartoon version of the far-better Henry Miller. Later as I went to the bar they were there and began muttering darkly about how they were going to kick my ass and a few choice homophobic slurs. The big, burly, working class old-school Boston bartender they'd been trying to chum up to glowered at them and told them to get out, making sure that before they left they heard him telling me “not to worry about those stupid assholes.”
A reading we did in Provincetown, hearing Norman Mailer was in the audience, and the glee in Jack's face as he thought he'd get to read a fantastic poem Jack had written after the Jack Henry Abbott fiasco, lambasting the ever-macho Mailer. Alas, Mailer had shuffled out just before the reading was to start (also thwarting my plan to say “Mr Mailer, I loved your big book, From Here to Eternity”).
By this point (well, whatever point we're at in my decidedly twisting narrative) I had moved in with Todd, just around the corner from Charlie's Tap – although Stone Soup had relocated to TT the Bears, a music club a bit farther down the street (but still very convenient for me walking home). Charlie's Tap wanted the room for its restaurant seven nights a week, and we had to migrate. Still, TT's felt like a step up – more room, and unlike most reading series, Stone Soup had swelled to capacity crowds of over 100 regularly at this time. Jack was leading Stone Soup into barnstorming swoops all over New England and points south, tapes of the Monday evenings were on local cable, the press was going well. Things were looking great. But …
All great waves break ashore eventually. For me at least, my participation was dented by Todd's testing positive for HIV, and his health deteriorating. A visit to his mother in rural California had him wanting to move, to be closer to his family. For me it was obvious: to try to save Todd, I'd have to abandon Stone Soup and Boston (granted, central California is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen, so the trade-off wasn't a complete disaster).
And for Jack and Stone Soup, trouble arrived in the form of slam poetry. When its proponents landed in Boston, Jack gave them a spot at the end of the Monday series, even if he was bewildered – his “inclusive, not exclusive” and social activism couldn't quite understand. “what, they … compete? People get knocked out? Poetry isn't a competition! It's communion.” But slam was fast, furious, popular, and if you shouted loudly enough, acted well, or crept around the room and hid under tables whilst you recited, you didn't have to worry so much about poetic skills. It was a hit.
As the Stone Soup team began fragmenting, Jack's personal life demanded more time and caused more stress too. Trying to spend as much time as he could with his two sons, atop arts and activism, was straining him. He never talked too much about his private life, and I was never one to try to get someone to talk if they seemed reticent. There was a lot going on behind the scenes that I could guess at, or got hints of, but I never sat down with Jack and asked questions, asked what I could do if anything. And now events in my own life were spiralling me far away.
My last two weeks in Boston/Cambridge we offered our empty apartment to Stone Soup for its Monday readings. Trouble was brewing with TT's, Jack desperately didn't want to miss a Monday night (Stone Soup had run somewhere every week, come hell or high water, for years and years). The last week, I was huddle in the still-bedded bedroom with food poisoning as the reading went on in the large, packed-full living room.
The next week, I was in Paso Robles, CA, far from Jack and Stone Soup, turning into a country boy. I remember Jack calling to check in one morning, asking – as any East Coaster would with tinges of envy when calling California in late Boston winter – how the weather was. As he asked, I was watching the morning mist do its sudden rise and disappearance over the hills behind our house. As I waxed lyrical, Jack said in his familiar mock-gritting-of-teeth, “aw, jeez; never ask a poet how the goddamned weather is!” In those days of no email, and with my hatred of the telephone, that was pretty much the last time I heard his voice until two years later.
At that point (1993), Todd's health was seriously declining, and with the nearest hospital a 40-minute drive down twisting hilly roads, we sold up and moved into San Francisco, the legendary Castro 'hood, with his doctor right around the corner. By blind luck, the week we moved in, Jack was visiting SF with Julie Stone and staying with Lawrence Ferlinghetti. “No dodges this time, Jack,” Ferlinghetti had told him. “This time, you're doing a reading at City Lights. An hour and a half, all yours.”
Ferlinghetti almost got his wish. True to form, Jack wouldn't do the whole show himself, and sliced off slots of time and told Neeli Cherkovski and myself (and enough others that we couldn't back out and force Jack to take the honours himself) that we were reading too. Jack was beaming, he and Julie were glowing and happy. Todd and I drove them up a mountain to take in the view, then down to Fisherman's Wharf for dinner. It was the last time Jack and Todd saw each other; two years later and intermittent contact between, I was calling Jack to tell him Todd had died (“be strong, brother,” Jack said, unconsciously echoing Todd's own deathbed exhortation to me to “be tough”).
Once more in San Francisco I saw Jack and Julie. I'd been to Prague and back, in a thwarted attempt to start life over after losing Todd and the interim rebranded myself Yuri (Todd had been born while Yuri Gagarin was orbiting the world, so in tribute I'd changed it for him in the last months of his life). Jack, alas, seemed to have been to Hell and back. All I could get was that he'd been hospitalised against his will for a short time, and was directing a lot of his rage and frustration at Julie. Ferlinghetti looked worried much as Jack had looked worried for John Weiners, and I felt helpless.
Shortly after, I started my own bad stretch, encountering two pretty messes who'd come to SF from New York with a medicine cabinet full of pills and powders and plenty of acquaintances who'd provide more. I was feeling trapped, alone, couldn't write, and was reeling. By 1999 I decided to return to Boston where (as the much-mentioned Weiners explained his own choice to settle there after much nomadry) it was a good place to be quiet and get work done. And I wanted desperately to pick up where I left off with Jack Powers and help him with Stone Soup.
Which brings us back to the second paragraph – why I buzzed back in to Jack's life and buzzed back out so suddenly. At that point, I just didn't have the strength to give Jack the help he needed, and like a craven little coward I vanished to lick my own wounds, but never reached back out once I could finally stand without wobbling again (which took til about 2002 or so, anyway). Then in 2003 I found myself finally having another burst of good writing, but financially crumbling and falling further and rent-controlessly further out of Boston down the Red Line into deepest Dorchester, wallowing in the always-unpleasant bitter Bostonian winters and suddenly deciding ping-ponglike to flee back to San Francisco, after a brief trip to make my peace with the place had deceptively nice weather and lured me back. And I never once tried to contact Jack. As time went on, my avoidance became shame at that avoidance, and every year my embarrassment increased. So of course I just buried it all down in my gut and moved along, rather than reach out to someone whose friendship had done so much for me.
So maybe it's for my sins that I'm now winterless forever here in Australia, with a wonderful second partner (the native-born reason I've wound up here) but no Muse – I think I left her bewildered in a back street in Boston muttering “you're back! Here's some po- hey, wait, where'd you go? Dammit, I'm tired of trying to follow you around! I'll just sit here ...” Or perhaps she has withheld her touch for the way I abandoned my poetic mentor and friend, and cast me adrift in a city that, for all its surrounding natural beauty, is the singlemost poetry-unimbued place I've ever lived (with the exception of my town of birth).
Last night, after starting this, and realising finally I hadn't eaten and really should, while making my own dinner, I put on Mahler's 9th symphony (Jack was always a Mahler man) and had to pause - what loomed in front of me was one of my favourite, most treasured memories of Jack Powers the poet, the educator, the art evangelist.
On those Monday evenings, when we'd gather at Joy Street and he'd tower over his small white stove, stirring the vat of boiling pasta and bubbling sauce, he'd always have the radio on low, a tiny transistor thingy, its antenna poking into the window on whose sill it sat, aimed out over the houses and buildings of Beacon Hill. This night was early on in the glory days – I forget who else was around the table that evening; just a few and not the later larger pack. It must have been autumn or winter – it was already dark outside. As we chatted, Jack paused to rush into the front room and emerge with handfuls of old Stone Soup chapbooks to emphasise a point or relate some hidden history of poetic Boston. He stopped, dropped the books on the table, and reached to the radio.
“Have you ever heard this?” he gently turned up the volume. From the tinny speakers a majestic orchestra soared. “It's Mahler's 9th.”
I confessed I knew next to nothing of classical music, being a 20something rock and roll snot.
“Well, listen to this ...” and he slowly, lovingly pointed out bits and pieces, what parts to listen to, what Mahler was doing here or there. I don't know how far we were into the symphony, but for a long, long work, it and time passed instantaneously. The light was low and the dark brr of Boston halted at the steamed-up window, blocked by the stove's gurgling warmth. I remember the lamp's glow behind Jack, the lamplight a halo illuminating his big fuzzy head as, eyes closed, he nodded, hands moving slowly, unpretentiously, like he was caressing the music.
“He's coming to terms with his mortality, here.” The music hushed to a slow, high, quiet drone, strings lingering, lingering. “Death is here, for us all eventually, he's realising there's no use to fight it, no need. And it's all right.” Jack's gentle voice, strings seeping from drone to serenity and acceptance. “He's done what he can do, and it's time to go.” I swear the stove even stopped bubbling to listen. “And he lets go.” The strings sigh a last long breathe and fade gently away. No one in the kitchen says a word, the radio is silent, Jack nods his head slowly, eyes still closed. For a few moments, the whole world is in that silence, all eternity in that kitchen.
All I can hope is, in Jack's last moments, that the serenity he brought to his kitchen that night long ago returned to him; he knew he'd done all he could do, death closed gently and peacefully upon him, and whatever there is of a calm eternity opened and welcomed him in.
Vale, Jack Powers.