In my words, September 16 – 22

I’ve been thinking of my friend Curtis who died earlier this month, on September the 8th, 2003. His doctor called that Monday morning because he’d gone into a coma. I was the guy who pulled the plug and had to know. In July, I’d given the order to revive my friend, but now no. 2003 hadn’t been much fun. We’d had crazy conversations that seemed to make sense: “There’s blue news and there’s green news.” There were paranoid outbursts and insults, “I’m dying and I look better than you do.” But Curtis kept bouncing back, then like a ball no one bounced anymore, he rebounded less and less; AIDS was doing him in at last.

His hand seemed colder than any living hand should have been when I held it and talked to him. Hearing’s the last to go and the first realized at birth; we humans are wired for sound. I read a poem out loud, turned to by chance, a serendipitous page perhaps, by one of my favorite poets, Juan Ramón Jiménez, from a book of his, Cielo y Piedra, that I’d grabbed before running out the door when the doctor’d called. Curtis spoke fluent German, only tourist Spanish, yet I was sure that he, an artist, would, if he were listening, appreciate it.

Mariposa de luz,
la belleza se va cuando yo llego
a su rosa.

Corro, ciego, tras ella…
la medio cojo aquí y allá…

¡Sólo queda en mi mano
la forma de su huída!

Butterfly of light
its beauty flies when I approach
the rose.

I run blindly after
almost catching it here and there

but all that remains in my hand
is the form of its flight.

A nurse came in, fiddling with things. I asked her how long she’d been working in Intensive Care. She said it was over twenty years. I asked her if she’d ever seen or felt anything mystical about death, but for her death was as mundane as a cough or the movement of the hand on a clock; the only thing she’d noticed was that the dying often have a hard time letting go of the living and the living often have a hard time letting go of the dying, but other than that no. I asked her if Curtis was going to die soon. She said she’d seen people like him go on for days, for weeks, a month. As soon as she said it though, his blood pressure began to plummet on the monitor. Had Curtis heard her and decided this was it? That’s what I was thinking; perhaps he’d even heard the poem by Jiménez. Another nurse came in and put his hand on my shoulder. “Are you all right?” he asked. “I’m fine,” I said thinking the nurse thought Curtis was my partner, but I didn’t say anything as the jagged line of life softened into a motionless one and a red light came on, but without sound.

Curtis at my place, circa 1996. Loretta Agro in the background.

Aten Reign by James Turrel

Time’s a cliché. Tempus fugit. A decade came and went. Ten years ago, the Iraq War had been going on for several months and I’d started to write sonnets partly in protest against it. My mother was alive yet and I’d visit and watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, Law and Order and Murder She Wrote with her, I who never watched television seeing it over and over. In NYC, Cachito was still a kitten doing somersaults on the windowsill and sleeping in the sun there. Cachito was all I needed. I had three lovers and wasn’t happy with any of them. “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye,” I said. Better yet, I discovered El Llano en Llamas by Juan Rulfo, perhaps the greatest book I’ve ever read. I continue to teach now and this week classes started again. Things are getting back to normal; summer’s over, and I’ve begun with helping verbs and writing, reviewing parts of an essay, the introduction, body and conclusion, the body with three paragraphs, each expressing one fact, one thought to prove a point, and always going from the least important to the most. When you listen to President Obama give a speech, he successfully does that. Speeches are nothing but essays spoken.

I don’t teach on Fridays and saw the James Turrell show at the Guggenheim. My friend Tom wanted to go and was nice enough to buy me a ticket. We got there in the morning half an hour before the doors opened, which is our custom; something we learned from our friend Curtis. Be the first in line, because then you’ll be the first to see what you’ve come to see, able to linger for awhile with your own thoughts before the crowd arrives with theirs. Friday at the Guggenheim was one of those times although the old hippie German couple in front of us got to lie down first in the very nucleus of the rotunda to look up at the light piece called Aten Reign through Frank Lloyd Wright’s rising spirals that were now covered with mesh, trapping your vision in a flawless ascendance of color changing in gradations as you went toward the ceiling; flawless it was, I’ll give it that. Other museum goers, like the spokes of a wheel shooting out of the old German couple, laid down to gaze up as if into the center of the universe; and all things being relative, it was. I’m not saying the lights weren’t fun or that I didn’t have a good time, but I enjoyed watching the people watching the lights more than I enjoyed watching the lights themselves. The light created the people. Fiat lux.


Here’s some of my light, a video and a poem, some shimmering I caught at the beginning of the month, when it was still summer; hopefully some of the shimmering’s been caught in the sonnet as well. Here’s to shimmering!

Sonnet 152

There was a brilliant bright light spreading
on the water contagious as fire but
just as I went to write about it it
wasn’t there anymore. For a whole month
in China I lugged all my stuff over
my shoulder until I tore the muscles.
Trying to write now is unbearable.
The cicadas sing. Does the wind bring them
or my own desire for them? Here comes
the light again moving along the stems
beyond my present reach and in the sweat
my beating heart brings in glistening drops
out of my skin. I’d forgotten. The pain
with every other care has gone away.

John Ashberry at the Public Library

On Thursday evening I decided at the last minute to go see John Ashberry at the Public Library on 5th Avenue where the lions stand guard. There was a long line to get in, but once inside I made my way to the front, wanting to film the poet. He’s a profile to begin with, and when he vanishes, you can still hear him loud and clear.


The drive down was smooth
but after we arrived things started to go haywire,
first one thing and then another. The days
scudded past like tumbleweed, slow then fast,
then slow again. The sky was sweet and plain.
You remember how still it was then,
a season putting its arms into a coat and staying unwrapped
for a long, a little time.

It was during the week we talked about deforestation.
How sad that everything has to change,
yet what a relief, too! Otherwise we’d only have
looking forward to look forward to.
The moment would be a bud
that never filled, only persevered
in a static trance, before it came to be no more.

We’d walked a little way in our shoes.
I was sure you’d remember how it had been
the other time, before the messenger came to your door
and seemed to want to peer in and size up the place.
So each evening became a forbidden morning
of thunder and curdled milk, though the invoices
got forwarded and birds settled on the periphery.

© 2012, John Ashbery
From: Quick Question
Publisher: Ecco / Harper Collins, New York, 2012

Curtis in his living room, Washington Heights, circa 2001. Photo by Jacob Okada

Leave a Reply