Saturday, January 14, 2023

Letter to Ron Atkinson

Dear Ron,

You are gone. I knew that you were gone, but I did not know when you left. My attempts to find you over the years were insufficiently calibrated. I could have found you. That I did not is one of my life's deep regrets.

This letter is in part an apology. And in part, it is a note of gratitude.

Ron I'm sorry that my efforts to connect with you while you were alive did not lead to a meeting. They could have, and they did not. I think you would tell me "so it goes," and you would be right, but also, I would have enjoyed talking to you. I thought about you and your poetry a lot in my life. I have not connected well with my teachers in this life. Late - and possibly too late, truth be told - I feel it as a real loss. 

When I was about sixteen I started sharing my poems publicly. In high school, in English class, we had to share and analyze a poem with the class, and I chose one that I had written. In response, the teacher gave me two of your chapbooks. She told me you had visited the school years ago. I had no concept of what a poet was, outside of history; the picture of you in tie dye with your daughter felt oddly familiar to me. You looked happy and clear. Later I learned that you had lived in Worthington around the time I was adopting all kinds of psychological survival strategies in response to the ongoing crisis of family, many of which strategies involved the local hippie and back-to-the-earth culture in which you were embedded.

You were kin to me; I knew this early, even if I lacked the words to say it.

Your poems frightenened me and the fear fascinated me. I couldn't stop reading them. Prior to your example I thought poems had to rhyme and be otherwise formal, include reference to God and nature, all of which reflected a kind of psychic distance from life and the world. Your poems blew that model up. I hid the books because I knew if my parents found them I wouldn't be allowed to read them, and I was terrified of going without them. I didn't realize how hungry I was for an intimate language until I read your poems. I didn't realize what poetry could actually do until I read them.

Because suddenly, the world was changed - suddenly anything and everything could go into a poem. No idea or image was unwelcome. Whatever I felt, no matter how scary or disturbing, no matter how dramatic or nonsensical, could be put into words and onto the page. It was a way of being engaged with life that I had not known was possible, and it literally saved me. It was like I'd been in a straitjacket bobbing in the sea, expecting to sink and drown at any moment, and suddenly I could swim. Suddenly there were all these islands, all these currents. Suddenly there were benevolent whales,  take your chances pirate ships, and multi-lingual octopuses.

It was hard to believe this world was real; my hunger for it was instantly legendary.

Your poems were mystical, profane, argumentative, irrational and beautiful. They declared their love for the cosmos and they celebrated that love. They were sexual and messy and comic. They were drunken ramblings, psychedelic hymns to gods so far outside the familar as to look like devils. 

They were (as for me, in this life, all poems must be) a map to survival - notes to the lost and forsaken about how to remember to be happy, salvage connections, really see the world in all its complex beauty, and how to remain true to your own truth, no matter how violently your family and community and the world at large tried to strip you of the grace, creativity and freedom that are inherent in all creation.

Suddenly I knew what the art was, and I swore myself to it forever, and the art and the vow saved me.

And Ron, I wish to holy fuck I could have let you know this before you died. You taught me that writing would save me, and I believed you and I was saved. You took the vow - the vow was evident in every line you wrote - and I took it as well. This life was never easy - it still is not easy - but in it I was able to be companionate, religious, and wordy. I gave myself - however ineptly - to the way of truth and love. I am a poor pilgrim and a crappy priest but I did not break faith. 

I did not let our shared gods down, and I did not let you - my first real teacher, my first real poet - down.

You said yes to living - despite the great pains and tragedies you faced, especially the death of your beautiful daughter - and your "yes" became the model for my "yes." I am more grateful than I can say but still. I would have liked to try.

I understand that at a nontrivial level, this failure to meet is ordained by the cosmos, because in the deeper way we did meet, are forever entwined as teacher and student, as brothers even, and that that level trumps by far the shallower level of appearance and experience. I get that. I know that we are talking about something here that in the ultimate sense is not personal but cosmic, that is in truth Love Itself.

And I know, too, that you might not see it that way. My path turned towards a form of spiritual healing, and the healing owned both an epistemological and a theological component that were Christian, New Age-y, and often imitative, especially of Hinduism. The language I use now, with which I have some basic fluency, and through which I am able to share my "yes" - albeit clumsily, falteringly - with the world may not have been your language. I never found any other poems by you; I have no idea how your work evolved, what it became. I accept that. Students move on, teachers let them go. It doesn't really matter.

Anyway. This blog post stunting as a letter is not enough, but we both know what is enough, and we both gave - both give - our hearts to it. Our shared bodies of work - mostly anonymous, mostly minor - are enough. Little lights will do, everybody forgets this. Thank you my brother, my teacher, my fellow traveler for letting me know the way forward. No darkness abides.

Thank you. A thousand times, thank you.  


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