. . . I'll write about this
as well, pulled through the pages by something,
as if in the hand, to write it down here.
Besides despair of writing it well enough
is this revulsion at smearing grief
in order to do it, to use a poem as if you were
trading what you have lived through for words,
selling out, by using, the worst secrets.
But the words come anyway. So when, finally,
I have to write them down, I fear
I may be stupidly tempting death, and yet
I write them as if my life is the poem to give -
its work come clearly, saying, go and write,
do what has been given to do, and
if it is given in grief, accept it there,
where you may see whatever else is given. . .
Roland Flint, from Stubborn , University of Illinois, 1990.
The poet Roland Flint, who died in January 2001, is something of an undiscovered treasure in American poetry. He is familiar to poetry-lovers in the DC/Maryland/Virginia area (he was on the faculty at Georgetown, was a regular at the St. Mary's College of Maryland Literary Festival, and served as Poet Laureate of Maryland), and he taught at Bread Loaf, but his work is not as widely known outside the region. This is unfortunate, because his poems are powerful, moving, and beautiful; at his best, they are as good as any poems you will ever read.
Roland's work is large-hearted, generous, and encompassing, much like Roland himself was. I met him in 1991 at St. Mary's College. He was a big man, with a big red beard, bright blue eyes, and a rollicking, jolly laugh. He seemed to be someone who enjoyed himself hugely; certainly, he enjoyed being surrounded by young, pretty, female poetry students. When he smiled, there was a twinkle in his eye that made him look like a slightly lecherous Ghost of Christmas Present. But beyond his appreciation for the feminine form, it was obvious he liked women, relished their company and conversation. He was an exceptionally gifted teacher and a marvelous raconteur, and he had more poems by heart than anyone I ever met (except possibly David Lehman). I have a vivid memory of him reciting Edward Arlington Robinson's "Eros Turannos" to about a hundred hushed and mesmerized people. Roland in front of an audience was wonderful.
But Roland on the page is even more wonderful. Many of his poems deal with the tragic death of his six-year-old son, Ethan, killed in the street by an automobile in front of his father and twin sister. What is remarkable about them, beyond their artistry, is their determination to find affirmation in the life left behind, their insistence that, despite staggering grief, the living must go on:
"A Poem Called George, Sometimes"
Before he died, my son made up this poem:
There once was a boy
Who went to the market
And bought some hot chocolate
And put it in his red pocket.
I said, it's fine, Ethan, especially that red
pocket - what do you call it? He said, what do you
mean? Most poems have names, I said. And he
And when he heard me repeating the story of his
poem and of its naming, he said, sometimes I call
That wasn't his best poem. Like me he didn't
intend his best poem: we were walking beside the
tidal basin just past dawn, the cherry trees in
bloom, the sun bright and the blossoms reflected
in the still water. He pointed down and said,
Look, water in the trees
I thought I would steal the title, my lost boy,
to be with you in your poem, but it's made me see
I'm going to have to write that poem I do not want
to write, named Ethan.
from Say It , Dryad Press, 1979.
This simple retelling of a simple story is as restrained as Ben Jonson's "On My First Son" and as powerful in its unspoken, unspeakable grief. How can the poet articulate such a grief? He can't, and yet, he must try. (Hear the echoes of "Rest in soft peace, and, ask'd, say here doth lie/Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry"?)
But Flint's work is also witty and funny and fun. In his 1991 collection, Pigeon, the poet takes on the persona of the ubiquitous bird after noticing certain physical similarities: "fat, rumpled, grouchy, clumsy...dressed just/like a pigeon in [a] rented tux." My favorite of these poems (for reasons which will be obvious) is this one:
"An Editor from Buzzard Press Writes"
To the pigeon saying thanks for sending
The poems as requested: we're shooting 7 back,
But one we "really like,"
And enclose a copy with a "number of changes"
"We think would make the poem stronger."
It's a little (28-line) versicle pigeon
Worked his tail off on (as usual) &
These guys suggest 21 changes! 21!
Including striking out half a line, then
A whole line, most of the definite articles -
Like any hapless rookie - &then,
The worst to p, they rewrite a line, providing
A bird-brained metaphor of their own,
Changing the line utterly, removing a meaning
Pigeon planted with ordinary, obsessed, & off-hand care.
Fuck you very much in his reply says (r)aging p,
But grinning with integrity.
It's hard to be filled with righteous indignation and self-deprecating humor at the same time, but Flint's use of pauses, exclamation points, and that terrific couplet at the end pulls it off.
There are many other Roland Flint poems I'd like to share, but there isn't room here. Instead, I'll close with the last poem in his final book, Easy , as both a benediction for a lost friend and a invitation to read more of his moving, priceless poetry:
Any day's writing may be the last,
He's reminded at 2 in the morning,
Making this year's last Italian
Notes, before readying his machine
And self to get aboard the bigger
Machine and fly, Dio Volente, home.
And so he repeats the Our Father
He said to himself before rising
And feels a heartfelt thanks, Lord,
For such poems as have come his way,
Whether or not they get read, and,
It goes without saying, few may.
And thanks as well as eagerness,
Almost daily, to greet the drone
With words, bequeathed in part
By what poets before have done:
He prays to be among them, one,
However small. The work is all.