I REMEMBER ELLIOTT COLEMAN as a slender, mild gentleman with neatly combed-back white, white hair. He always wore a suit and tie. He was taller than six feet, and it was said that Mr. Coleman, who often sat with his legs crossed at the knees, sometimes had both feet flat on the floor at the same time. We had lots of off-beat information on this formidable figure, prominent senior poet and Director of the legendary Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins. This was 1966 – 1967, and Coleman seemed clearly in charge of the Writing Seminars, maybe working as an independent agent within the political structure of the English Department or the College of Arts and Sciences. I get the sense that he kept his distance, maybe happily ignored by the academics. My student pals and I secretly called him “Elco,” a stylishly 60’s combining of his first and last names, a corporate logo completely at odds with this 1930’s gentleman. He was almost courtly when Joe Cardarelli, one of my pals, and I visited him in his apartment seven or eight years after we had graduated from the Seminars’ M.A. program. Having worked up the courage to call him on the spot to invite ourselves over, we were paying homage. If I remember right, he served us each a glass of white wine, and sat upright in his chair, slapping his knee for emphasis or whenever he laughed. As ever, I forgot to look to see whether both feet were flat on the floor.
Aura of white,
Joseph sits close to him
and, as gin is white for a white while,
vodka’s cheaper. Elliott, your beard
is beautiful and though you’re not a god
you’d surely pass for one of His helpers.
And you wept at the Venetian Mass,
behind a pillar, eyes mistreated by doctors
whose diagnoses – all three of us agree – are often
no better than bad guesses. Where’s the MD
who says I think you’ve got something I can’t cure?
You tell us how after falling in your kitchen you lay
helpless on the wet linoleum
an hour unable to rise
determining – an educated guess –
“2 days before they’ll miss me.” What inspiration
brought your thought to grasp the doorknob
and save yourself
2 days’ ennui, hunger, and the cold, cold floor?
Aura of white. You speak of suicide.
No family. No one really cares, you say,
about 180 degrees off course. How can you fail
to know how when you die
those who have ignored your work
will dig out “Requiem” and say, It’s there.
You kill yourself, you satisfy the ones
who nod approvingly, as if all death
is written out forever in your words.
Poulet, in Nice, appreciates your labors,
but the French are tight, so your only pay
for loving translation is the work itself.
“And I know it will be done by December 15”
you say, and slap your knee, your breathless
voice deepens and you stop.
We let the silence thicken in the room,
complement of whiteness, 40 years on Nembutal
“and I don’t need those dreams.”
Joseph and I can’t leave, even though
you’re tired and need some time alone.
We let a final silence build among us
and I can see how you appreciate such pause.
“Marvelous you came,” is how you word it,
when we do let go our hold on your presence.
Your hand is warm and in your face I see
the strength of poems build against the curse
of whiteness on a page. Dear Master,
when Poulet is done, don’t quit,
but give us ten more years at least,
live long enough to cheat those motherfuckers of their praise.
(1974 or ‘75)
Geof Hewitt MA,’67 (Writing Seminars) is Vermont’s reigning slam poetry champion. His latest collection of poems for the page, from Mayapple Press in 2010, is The Perfect Heart: Selected and New Poems. He is also the editor of Quickly Aging Here, an anthology of Seventies poets (Doubleday).
This essay is part of
of work by and about Elliott Coleman.