Friday, July 07, 2006

The United Nations Of Poetry


The author attempts to capture the poet at CAV, Providence, July 1st. Posted by Picasa

Let's have a merry journey, and shout about how light is good and dark is not. What we should do is not FUTURE ourselves so much. We should NOW ourselves more. "NOW thyself" is more important than "KNOW thyself." Reason is what tells us to ignore the present and live in the future. So all we do is make plans. We think that somewhere there are going to be green pastures. It's crazy. Heaven is nothing but a grand, monumental instance of the future. Listen, NOW is good. NOW is wonderful.

---Mel Brooks

The cloud is free only
to go with the wind.

The rain is free
only when falling.

---Wendell Berry

A monk asked Chao-Chou: "What is zazen?"
Choa-Chou replied: "It is non-zazen."
The bewildered monk said: "How can zazen be non-zazen?"
"It's alive!" was Chao-Chou's reply.

---Zen mondo

John Tagliabue, the late poet, spoke of The United Nations of Poetry. He created the term sometime in the early 1960s. I don't think he ever wrote a poem about it...or defined exactly what it was. It didn't seem to have an organization or charter or official members. Occasionally, in the early days of its non-existence, he said certain events or readings were sponsored by or part of the activities of The United Nations of Poetry. As the years went by, and there were more poems about "current events" turning up, he mentioned The United Nations of Poetry more and more. Many of us students and friends presumed, I guess, we were members of it...though John never said we were, and I know of nobody who ever asked for a meeting, Maybe I'll learn there were meetings somewhere. There was one on July 1st, however, in Providence, Rhode Island.

I didn't hear the term United Nations of Poetry mentioned even once during the 4 hours of wondrous tribute to our departed loved one. I didn't even think of it until I began to wonder how I'd write about the afternoon. That's when it came to me: that's what it was and that's who we are. How else to describe the astounding diversity of people who showed up? What other way than united were the laughter and tears we shared? The glowing spirit of the poet shimmered everywhere above us all.

Officially it was a memorial service on what would have been John's 83rd birthday, but he had died a month ago of what gets called now "complications from surgery." Somehow his widow Grace and 2 daughters Francesca and Dina had organized his dense little address book enough to send out invitations far and wide. There was an address of some restaurant in an old factory district of Providence...and there were directions that looked too complicated to read, so I stupidly depended on Mapquest instead to get me totally lost in there. Grace said on the phone, "I guess I should have put an RSVP on it," because she had no idea how many people were going to come. She said she thought a lot were. It was standing room only.

Clearly we were in a very chic and gourmet place. Converted from a knife factory, CAV (which reportedly stands for coffee, antiques, and victuals) is a large L-shaped room with the bar and kitchen to the center and side. Jazz gets played on a stage that can be seen by nearly every table, although you can find seclusion if you like. Lighting is by chandeliers, candles, lamps here and there. The whole place is "decorated" like a cross between an antique store and a shop specializing in tribal artifacts. In fact it is both of those besides an eatery/drinkery...and you can buy any of the art that intrigues you. Did I say there are rugs on the walls? Just the kind of place where you might expect some wise wizard to appear, blow the dust off a thick tome, and begin the incantation. And shortly, that's exactly what happened. Many wizards.

At first Cesca addressed us, thanked us all for coming, and introduced the central family table situated before the stage. Lots of Tagliabues were assembled. Then Bill Hiss came forward, representing the Administration of Bates College, where John taught all his life and many of us went to school. Bill said he'd MC the afternoon...but not so much, because there was no program and everyone hoped we'd all know what to do. Pretty much we did. Maybe the family had some idea of what it would be like, but I sure didn't. I had marveled for years at how John would send out envelopes full of poems to people, week after week, month after month. They were typed with carbon paper, preferably on a non-electric machine, and then cut to size with scissors, folded and put neatly with personal handwritten comments and greetings into envelopes, showering you---or at least your lap---with bliss when you opened them. Somebody said she thought maybe he was trying to save paper. (Probably he was trying to save postage, it occurs to me just now.) Another person said possibly everybody in the room had had a poem written especially about and for him or her. I figured I wasn't the only one---although he made you feel how special he knew you were---but I had no idea how far-reaching was the scope of his mailings.

Here came family members, some of them more "famous" than John was. They related how incredible it always was to meet him someplace, any place in the world, and what a traveler he was and how at home anywhere he always seemed. There were friends from Lewiston, Maine, where Bates is, who had driven down to tell us what knowing him in town had been like. University faculty don't always mix it up, you know, with just-folks who were born and raised downtown. John did, because if your paths crossed in a memorable way, he didn't care who you were or what you did. There were Maine poets who came, all of them recounting how Tagliabue had encouraged them, sometimes writing lengthy critiques---as poems of course---of their offerings, something I don't think he did for most of us students. I guess if you were a serious writer and you asked, he responded. At last a few of us students began to creep up to the formidable stage, and recount experiences and read a poem or 2. There were hugs and kisses with people I haven't seen in 45 years. And then some of us performed a scene and a bit more from the Mario series of 12 puppet plays. Never published and rarely seen, we tried our best to become the fantastic and mythical characters. My wife even attempted the overwhelming Green Queen (perhaps not knowing completely that usually only John played that part) and she was magnificent! And of course we wept.

When 4:00 came, Cesca and the owner did their best to sweep us out of the place. It was not easy, but they said we could continue on in the courtyard if we liked...and we did. At last, perhaps exhausted with all the intensity, we began to move individually back to our cars and our lives that had been so transformed. We were delegates to the rest of the world now. Dana touched my shoulder and said, "Grace is leaving, if you want to say good-bye." There she slowly came, this wonderful woman and artist I have known for so many years. What to say, how to say it? But as usual, she knew...and said, "O Dick, I'm so glad I got to see you now. I wanted to give you something," and she set down the beautiful orchid plant she was carrying. Then she offered me one of John's scarves...so important in the Maine winters. "I think it's alpaca," she said. I put it to my face, and the fragrance of John and their apartments in Maine and Providence filled me with memory. "Oh," I said, "I want to give you my gratitude and here you are giving me something. That's how it always is!" She smiled and laughed and we promised to talk on the phone...and then they were gone.

But that is how it is. And it's what I've learned from the meeting of The United Nations of Poetry. It's giving. You see, I've always had trouble receiving gifts and the Ultimate Gift and The Word. I've felt unworthy. I've felt I've been bad, and dishonest, and deceitful...and just not good enough to be forgiven, to be entrusted with great work, a mission. Some of that is a copout and laziness I know, and so there's all that to think about too. But the point is~~~it's not about me at all. Giving just happens. And John's poems and life demonstrate that again and again. Who deserves a daffodil? But there one is. Be grateful and just give. Don't you see?

The look and book of truth can never be unfaithful

Now it's not the first time that
I see angels
I mean snowflakes
or that I hear music
born out of what seems
silence but it is the
most necessary ( is that
easy ? ) fact in the
fabulous world of
changing events that
renewal is the law
of Providence.
It occurs in strange and at times difficult and painful
ways, death, loss of
faith; but as I see
all these minute
snowflakes in the grey
Maine day which I
cannot count any more than St. Thomas could the
angels on a pin's head
I am conscious of a quiet newness that I
declare a cool and refreshing
in some ways undecipherable
new testament.

---John Tagliabue

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