IT ALL STARTED WITH HAPPY THE WOLF
It all started with Happy the Wolf, the beloved family-dog of the poets Pam Uschuk and William Pitt Root. About 14 years ago I was urged to join Facebook by the wonderful Jack Estes, then publisher of Pleasant Boat Studio, that I might “promote” my upcoming book. There was this striking white dog, his veterinary crisis, and ‘his poets’ who became, in that weird magic-wand way, “friends.” These poets, and maybe Happy too, selected Lindsey Royce’s Play Me A Revolution as a winner of the Silver Concho Prize to be published by Press 53 in 2019. I bought the book, which had an energy and vibrancy I liked a lot, and thus connected with a new “friend.” Lindsey is a lively presence on Facebook and when her husband John became horribly ill with stomach cancer she was, I think, shored up by sharing his difficulties, her daily caregiving chores, the ups and downs, her hope, the soon frailer hope, and then that fading of one last hope. John --in his terrible pain, his rallies, his humor within the bitter unfairness of cancer-- somehow came alive for us “friends.” We outsiders, from various distances, cared about both Lindsey and her beloved husband. We cheered them on, kept the faith, and we stayed to honor a wrenching farewell. That last Christmas we saw John in bed, his brightened face surrounded by cards and gifts from faraway “friends.” For me, that’s a precious memory. I -- with others -- was given the gift of witness and a true use for hopes and prayers.
There’s something stronger than death, and that’s the
presence of those absent in the memory of the living.
from Valerie Perrin’s Fresh Water for Flowers
John Kevin Bouldin: veteran, husband, chef, animal lover, fly-fisherman, man at home in the wilderness —was a person cherished altogether: someone unmet I‘ll not forget. We should all love as much as he was loved.
The poems in The Book of John are passionate, devastating, lush with pain; in sorrow there is much life, and from anger unexpected tenderness. The opening poem ‘Portrait in Half-Light’ lifts its face, declaring
My husband could be anyone
in this half-light. I pay gentle attention
to massaging his toes, the balls of his feet,
and his arches, the only body
parts that cancer hasn’t slit
like the guts of a fish.
I am not granted the luxury of turning back….
The poet has introduced herself and her beloved; she is making things clear. Speaking of ‘the beginning of your end,’ she says ‘under the blanket we lay dying.’ Royce does not pretend to separate “speaker” and “poet;” I find this refreshing; as a reader I don’t have to fuss if I am getting it right. What’s delivered is the dedicated tending, this hard work of mourning through language which gives passion, fear, anger and bitter sadness shape through this poet’s mutable, though singular, voice. As hope wanes Royce wonders “ Do I walk away/or toward…?” Who is this being she so loves and who loves her? What have they shaped – the structure of their love-- does it survive? At one point the poet says “He no more belongs to me/than snowfall…” (a line I love.) making a figure for spiritual “non-attachment” that may later endure and comfort. From the title poem, which berates and pleads with God, Royce puts her foot down:
Because my testimony will be direct
as an aspergil’s aim, because I am wife
and waterer of forget-me-nots, because
fanatically, I halo my love
while you God,
Wherever my dead husband John is,
I demand you nurture him.
This poem reads more vividly and musically than just these few lines; I find it sobering, passionate and beautifully wrought. It’s full of a difficult grace yet confronts a “vile injustice.” The Book of John swells with the life of what’s lost; their hikes, and favorite foods, their joking about who gets the last best cookie, dogs, music, drinks shared with friends, all the vibrancy and depth of desire as well as remembering John’s years in the military. It’s touching that Lindsey Royce individually addresses each of John’s elderly parents. This book is so felt with its emotionally propulsive lines; the poems, full of credible, passionate intensity and grace touch on far more than I can describe to you here.
Everything about our house, old and new,
speaks of you, and the panoramic country
we made our home: …
our dirt drive lined
with those cottonwoods which make me sneeze.
I’m still moving through tunnels
and underpasses, reverberating our song.
from ‘Everything About Our House’
I hope I would have found The Book of John without Happy the Wolf but I am ever grateful to him. For a number of my friends, this is the season of widowhood and while I haven’t yet felt such a grief this book brings me closer to recognizing its agonizing power. For anyone currently grieving, this book may be too raw. For you who are friends and helpers of those who grieve, the rage, pain, and celebration of this book-- about a man named John --may break something open for you as it did for me. And oh, for any reader these poems touch the deepest of life-wishes: love, acceptance, endurance.