Three days ago I learned that my friend Sundin Richards, poète maudit, was dead by his own hand.
Poète maudit. How he'd roll his eyes if he read that. His life was not a quotation. But he was fulfilling a tradition after all.
He came upon the scene in his late teens, shockingly ambitious, anomalously gifted, scandalouly good-looking, walking a teetering line between bravery and bravado which he followed to the end. The first night I met him I infuriated him by mockingly citing a remark from Rimbaud about systematically deranging the senses. We became good friends, often arguing, reading poetry, drinking until early in the morning. But I did not have his predilections and stamina for alcohol, let alone "harder stuff," and I was no street fighter. I stayed out of his way when he was in his rage and his cups. In later years, when we lived in different cities, he would call me up and talk about having read Moby Dick yet again, or argue the health and optimism, spring and all, of Doc Williams against my dour Eliot and the cruelty of April. He thought I was wrong about all kinds of things. "Do you really believe in God?" he'd say, and I'd ask, sometimes only with a raised eyebrow, Do you really not? I don't think I convinced him of much. Not explicitly. It didn't matter. Those kind of arguments you get only with the ones who love you. They're how the love happens.
He taught me how to understand modern and postmodern poetry in the absence of rhyme. "The line," he would insist to me over and over, "is the original punctuation." He said this to me until I got it, and it made me understand how all punctuation, all notation, flowed from an originary music. His poems are tracings of the fissure between inner and outer -- the hidden and the expressed. Not that there was anything hermetic about his poems. The ins and outs here are just the ordinary ones: spirit and labor, the breath and the hand. The neumes (from pneuma), which comprise the West's first musical notation (another sort of punctuation), are graphic indications of hand motions. In his own work the lineation is crucial. Read The Hurricane Lamp with attention to breath. Slowly, and more than once.
For these past three days I have been thinking of a story Sundin often repeated: an anecdote about John Berryman, one leg already over the rail of the Washington Avenue bridge in Minneapolis, turning to give a small wave to the passing traffic, before he took his last step into the air. Today, unexpectedly, I found this post about Berryman's last poem, and it made me wonder, how much of our art is a long, slowed-down, wave from a precipice? A gesture of greeting as we are already going?
My feelings about him were conflicted. Like he was. When he was drunk, he was first irascible, then belligerent, then incoherent. It hurt to talk with him when he was like that. Towards the end, he knew he had alienated many people who loved him. If I always set aside at least a day to see him when I visited Salt Lake, this was also in the knowledge that I'd be flying away again. And yet I loved those afternoons, pulling books off the shelf and saying, Have you listened to this one lately? I can still hear him reading Tennyson, Stevens, Blake, Pound. I will never forget him reading "Saint Judas" by James Wright. For all his extraordinary experimentation, Sundin was extremely sensitive to the plain old music and feeling for which one turns to poetry, and knew -- first-hand -- that these were sometimes in direct proportion to each other. When he read aloud, the attention he gave others' words was precise and reverent.
He would concede, if you caught him unguarded, that he'd poured a great deal of pain through words. But there was always a residue, and he would not have wanted it otherwise. I'll say of Richards what he said of our friend the poet Glenn Parker --
He knew that the singing was no cure for the wounding, and that this was a good thing.I had discussed with him the possibility of doing an interview for this blog. He'd agreed, but we hadn't started on the exchange yet. I have inevitably subjected my last phone conversation with him -- two weeks ago -- to the fruitless forensics of memory for the slightest whisper of suicide. Pointless, obvious. It was everywhere and nowhere in his work. I can't help this fumbling over all those words, even though I know he'd not have wanted it. I turn back to his poetry, and I find his inscription to me on the title page of his book:
What the heart wants is often perfected by the hand.My post's title comes from his poem "Dirty Stories." That line is one of the finest and most succinct definitions I know of what our projects of poetry and philosophy share. I can't really summon the resources of eloquence, and I don't want to. I'm leaving so much out. I commend him to the objective of all our argument, beyond all objects, beyond all my arguing and all his objections. Now he's given me the last word, and I'm giving it back to him. I'm going to end with the poem's final phrase; it's what I have of and for him now, for now (and what else is there?):
Everything bends to
[Postscript: I am informed that a memorial for Sundin is scheduled for 5 PM Sunday, June 28, at Weller's Book Works in Trolley Square, Salt Lake. I won't be there, but I include this for anyone who happens to stumble on this before then.]