Ken Irby, Rest (Travel, Drink, Read and Write) in Peace: Everyday Magic, Day 861

IrbybyRobertAmoryLast night, unusually cool and refreshing for this time of year, I drove home late in the dark, remembering another such summer night over 25 years ago. My husband Ken and I were hamboing — a  Swedish couple’s dance more akin to flying than waltzing — across the Meadowbrook apartments parking lot while Ken Irby clapped his hands together, calling out, “Marvelous!” We were in the middle of one of those sublime Ken Irby evenings back then when we would go to his apartment, partake of a perfectly-prepared roast chicken, some wicked dessert, and for those who drank, too much wine and after-dinner sherry while talking of books and poets, adventures and more books. Somehow the topic of folkdancing, which Ken and I do, came up, and I said something about the miraculous hambo. Not having room between the roving stacks of books in Ken’s small apartment, we took to the parking lot.

Last night I got to join some of Ken’s closest friends, some of whom have been devoting themselves to his health and comfort over many months of illness, in a hospital intensive care room. I walked in to find Robert reading a passage from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (the 1855 edition, which surely would have mattered to Ken), on Joe’s cell phone, and I soon caught on that we were passing the phone around, each reading a passage, nine of us in a semi-circle around Ken. Whitman never sounded so strong, meaningful or relevant to me before although I’m a long-time fan. Hearing this poetry in different voices brought it thoroughly alive as we watched Ken raggedly breath, his pulse and heart rate slowly dropping on the monitor.

Ken and I met when I was assigned to his basement office in the bowels of Wescoe (before it was renovated) on the KU campus in 1986. A new teaching assistant in English, I was thrilled to know I would be sharing an office with a “famous poet” as well as another office mate. I was also told Ken could be difficult. But that difficulty wasn’t such an issue as long as I didn’t contest him using 80% of the bookshelves and file cabinets for hundreds of book he had out from the library on long-term loan based on the premise that who could possibly appreciate these books more than him?

Our third office mate changed regularly, beginning with a quiet, religious, sports-minded, weightlifter from Texas, who, upon meeting us, said, “You can tell a lot about a man by how he fills out his shirt.” Other office mates rotating through until our last, and best one, Andrew, who had a crazy enough sense of humor to match ours, and also supported me when I complained about Ken.

There was a lot to complain about: Ken was arrogant, self-absorbed, and haughty. He regularly favored men over women, sometimes humiliated women poets in public, and got belligerent when he drank too much (which he did often). As one of my friends, and a fellow women poet, and I recently agreed, he could be a fucking jerk, but he was our fucking jerk.  In ten years of rooming with him, he never read my poetry, and he was even less enthusiastic about my growing family. As he held court with his students, talking enthusiastically about Duncan or Whitman, he rolled his eyes at me when he saw me nursing an infant with one arm while grading papers with another. When I told Ken was pregnant with my third child, he raised his eyebrows, sighed dramatically, and with his deep velvet voice, yelled out, “Not again, Caryn!”

We actually had a blast together co-habitating in an 8′ by 8′ space, packed with three desks, three file cabinets, and a whole lot of shelves. We shared every ounce of English department gossip, tended to love and hate the same people, and were easily outraged on each other’s account. If someone did me wrong, Ken properly trashed them with his acute verbal speed and expansive vocabulary. We puzzled over the quandary of teaching, celebrated the students we liked best, and wondered what happened to the ones who went astray. We praised Rilke, who we both loved, and Ken made it a point to give me Rilke poetry on my birthday, because Rilke and I share the same birthday. In fact, Ken knew every famous poet’s birthday, and commemorated it. We talked Kansas up one side and down another, Ken frequently telling stories about Fort Scott, where he grew up. In readings we participated in over many years, Ken read from his poems, so strong, it seemed they always existed in some form. He also knew literature in such great and vibrant nuance and depth that he could (and did!) talk at length about most dead or living writers I mentioned, which was particularly helpful for me when I was studying for my comps. Over the years in that office, and the many more years since then, we updated each other on children — my kids, and his very beloved brother’s children — and caught up on people we knew, travels, and what he had been reading lately. Whatever Ken was, he was never boring.

Reading Whitman to Ken last night, I realized — as we all realize in those last moments with dear ones — that in the end, only love matters. Here this dear, complicated, paradoxical man, poet (read this homage to visitors from the farthest star), Kansan, teacher, and friend was dying, surrounded by poetry. Although we switched from Whitman to Rilke before we got to this passage from Leaves of Grass, I believe these lines speak perfectly to the Ken I knew. May he sound his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the next world, our affection for him trailing behind.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

God Has a Little Talk With Fred Phelps: Everyday Magic, Day 792

Fred: You’re God?

God: You were expecting some white man with a beard. Puleeeaze!

Fred: But you’re Black, and you look like Barbra Streisand.

God: That’s because I’m Haitian. And I love being Barbra on my good days. You know what she sings about people who need people.

Fred: Say, are you a fella or a gal?

God: Fred, Fred, Fred, didn’t you ever stop to consider that God was a drag queen? How else could we create man and woman in our image?

Fred: But all my life, I…..

God: Don’t want to hear it, Fred. I know what you did all your life, and it hurts my head, my heart too.

Fred: Are you this way because of all the fags?

God: (Turning away from Fred for a moment) Emily, would you bring me the extra strength aspirin right away? (Turns back to Fred) That’s Emily Dickinson, one of my favorites. Love hanging with that girl. She’s a hoot. Now Fred, I’m so sick of hearing you say that F-word that as of this moment, every time you say it, what will come out of your mouth is “the lights fandango.”

Fred: But the lights fandango have ruined everything, even hell, which is where I must be by mistake.

God: No heaven, no hell, my misguided non-friend, but just what you make of it – just like the old saying which, by the way, I came up with. Now enough of you saying anything. It’s time for you to hear me out. You have been bad, Fred, very, very bad. Lucky for you, I have a way of dealing with the likes of evil ones. You’re going to Life Rehab.

Fred: But I don’t do drugs.

God: Life Rehab, Fred. You’ll have many decades, maybe centuries, to work out what made you such Fercockt.

Fred: What?

God: Fercockt. Yiddish for “fucked up.”

Fred (looking horrified): You’re not Jewish, are you God?

God: Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, you name it. I’m even atheist. I know, no one can believe in themselves all the time.

Fred: How is that….

God: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” That’s Walt Whitman, someone else I put together. Love when the poets get it right! Back to what I’m saying…

Fred: Whitman? Isn’t he a lights fandango?And what the heck do I do in Life Rehab?

God: A little of this, a little of that. No golf — Genghis Khan ruined that for everyone, but lots of self-reflection activities. Some collaging, a lot of writing, long walks on the beach, a lot of juicing, a bit of hard love counseling, big time energy healing, and if you’re really making progress, maybe a massage, and of course, group therapy sessions with the guys….

Fred: The guys?

God: Fred, you don’t think you’re the worse badass I’ve seen? You’re not even in the league of A-List evil. We have some long-time rehab residents. Stalin has been a bear. And Hitler….don’t even get me started on that one. I refuse to send him back even as a slug until he makes a lot more progress. I don’t know if Leona Hemsley and her dog will ever leave even although she complains about the thread count of the sheets constantly.

Fred: How long are people there?

God: That depends on you, Fred. We’ve had some make remarkable progress. Mussolini was able to turn it around in about 23 years. Richard Nixon knocked our socks off at how fast he progressed, but then again, once he came out, all his unpleasantness melted away. Some will be there for hundreds of years. You’ll love the activities. We have the best crafts counselors there. No fluorescent posters for you, though. You don’t get to touch hot pink for at least 20 years.

Fred: Sounds like a lot of damn basket weaving.

God: Don’t knock basket weaving, Fred. Charles Manson is exquisite at it. Now if you’ll excuse me (turning to Emily Dickinson to take the pills she brought him). What is this green stuff, Emily?

Emily Dickinson: A shot of wheat grass. Good for you, like a certain slant of light.

God (laughing): Good one, Emily. Hey, start early and take your dog. (Looks back at Fred) Guess you don’t know her poetry, do you, Fred? No prob. We have lots of poetry in Life Rehab. You’ll be memorizing a poem a day, starting with the work of Paul Monette, one of my favorite of the lights Fandango. Oh, and one more thing, Fred, you’re not in Kansas anymore. A little gift for the sunflower state this first day of spring. Now as most people who knew of you would say, be gone with you. Emily and I are going to Kansas to get some barbecue.

Living in Two Worlds At Once, or “Do I Contradict Myself? Very Well Then, I Contradict Myself”: Everyday Magic, Day 428

A few days ago, a woman driving me through a pounding rainstorm in New England revealed to me that she both works for an organization that receives some state funding and is president of the state libertarians (which call for eliminating funding of state programs as well as no or only voluntary taxes). As Walt Whitman said, “Do I contract myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. (I am large. I contain multitudes.)”

Besides, it’s not like I don’t contradict myself in many ways also: I drive through Taco Bell on the way to the ecological meeting, I write about bioregionalism and sense of place while flying all over the country, and here’s the kicker of late: I totally support the Occupy Wall Street movement although I will be out of contact with it in early December for four days because I’m getting on a cruise ship with an amusement part in the center of it.

For many years, I’ve realized how much we live in two worlds at once: one foot clad in a warm, fashionable boot walking through the world to which we were born (which has been steadily going to hell in a handbasket); the other foot, bare of course, in the world we’re creating by how we live, work with others, build and interact with community, land, place, work, soul.

It’s hard to walk this way without falling over at times, but the alternatives don’t appeal to me much. Stepping completely into compliance and acceptance of a world in which profit motivates action over values isn’t a way to live with integrity. On the other hand (or foot), being a purist, even taken to extremes (say living off the grid, maybe hiding out in a tent on a public lands, foraging and hunting) doesn’t make for many opportunities to improve the world for the multitudes we contain and that we are.

I’m not defending Taco Bell, Libertarians, or cruise ships — I think none of these are ultimately the way to move ahead in good relation to the social contract. But this world is imperfect, and so are we. There are also many ways to grow our own food, and not just by gardening (although of course I’m in favor of that exponentially). The important thing is that we’re both honest about our contradictions and committed to doing our part to cross over, not just on our own but with our people, to the world we believe in: one that replaces poverty with peace, powerlessness with voice, blind greed with generous vision, and isolation with community.