For Richard Bartee
By Matthew Paris
Our shepherds have eluded their sheep awhile;
They hope they might be alive on day care
Somewhere; the true mourning in Arcadia for you
Hasn't begun, Richard; the sheep cozeners
For openers don't think much of their jobs.
Hey, the income's good or tolerable, somebody's
Printing funny money in a cellar somewhere
The noodles are fine; the damned mutton's fresh.
They left their crooks on the yellowing green
They're watching marathons of Howdy Doody
Re-runs. We know, Richard, sheep themselves
Are wooly experts on the cosmic subway
On the new parade of movies, what one can buy
With ATM cards that just won't quit in a supermarket.
With such a population you'd hardly notice
When a saint like you read verse on trains
Preached virtue in school lunchrooms, pitched
Adult life of power over tepid chocolate milk.
The news itself didn't feature your hidden march
To virtue; perished readers couldn't fathom you
Or anything too much beyond their interest either.
What's in the media these days but spammed fluff
From the fecund fantasy of downtown pimps?
Once, Richard, you moved underground whimsically
Like one whistling Dixie in a cemetery
Even the sensation, God's charity in an abyss
Hardly caught or held their fixed saurian eye.
Who was this man who one day preached in tombs
Motile, hurtling through an artificial night?
What sort of waggish hero with a soft voice
And the massive shape of an Olympian turned
Hell's crannies filled with small discomforts
Into temples rich with virtue? Who honored you
With knighthood, the right to joust daily
With subway placards offering a beer or two
To quench the roughness of the throat, the whale
Who held such wights in its innards whirling
Though the subterranean lakes of Pandemonium?
Later you wrote raffish jingles on tobacco
Sold filters to relieve us from wickedness
Of industries who'd vomited their steely offal
Into nacral rivers, bringing night to herons
I know always when some outdoor meeting
Called New York together to protest some vice
That oozed out ordinary venom in its dull atrocity
You were magically there with soothing elixir,
Not to make enemies. You saw light in Lucifer.
Richard, you championed the power of your charity
Power to heal, not merely posture; you were sprite
Of anodynes of honeyed reason. My guess is once
A million trekkers in the depths touched by you
Decades ago had muttered five or eight years
Later: this mad stranger changed my life. Richard,
Without trumpets or any kings you were the wizard
Of the abyss, apt to hoard the old clothes found
In city garbage bins; you alone knew the refuse
Might be what some wintry freezing spirit needed.
Richard, let the sheep go home; there is no hearth
For them. Let them think the paper green is lush
Somewhere. Let shepherds sitting in stone malls
Wait for the gaudy news to find out who they are.
You were neither sheep nor shepherd; free of all
This crude autocracy of use of meat and wool
Maverick, powerful as light itself, no dull language
Could not pinon what you were to God or America.
Avuncular papa, caring priest, witty, elegant
Baron and rogue of the streets, champion and poet.
We have no words for singularity, nouns are mediocre
Crooks designed for simple sheep. Richard, no crooks
Have words for you. Your long and fruitful ministry
Enhanced brass mortality of millions, escaped
All commerce, spun like nocturnal energy ascending
Clockwise in spheres beyond their dullish science.
Dapper in a light green suit, wry, an urbane smile
Mocking your grave journey, underground, ran verse
At steeled-sheathed robots in a pit. They wondered
Whether their ambition to be jetsam, furniture
In a lake of fire was more apt for sycamores
Than spirits hurtling through tunnels in abysses.
In youth you played at magic in a game of mayhem
All America adores; a canny quarterback whose swift
Intrepid moves on football fields made many fans
Swear as you went slicing bigtime over tackle
You were perfection as a leader of such carnage.
I know an athlete is always set apart, a hero
In his heart, most leonine among the many craven
I don't perceive what deep and lightless alchemy
Had burnt you in invisible fire to mold your skills
At end runs, passing, tackling, blocking
In an abstract barony of violence and bad knees
Into soldier for the healing of the universe.
Now Richard, I wish I had asked you. What is grace
That comes to us some think within a gulped pill
Or molten treasure buried in a soft mound of flesh?
What birth in ultimate darkness was foaled by nature
In your close-up magic? Modest as you were, Richard
You would have told me, though a bit embarrassed.
I suppose you must have learnt in puerile youth
From many second halves to be resolute, strike
When the other heroes crumple, take the hooks
The hidden kidney punches from the swarm of guards
Do not back down, be resolute. What does that say?
Could we discover from you how to be a miracle
In a pen for certified churls to teach tricks
To the less adept? Richard, I hardly think so.
I'll miss your memoirs. Maybe you had feints
In mysteries you'd learnt within the split tee
You'd brought to night games beyond the goal posts.
It wasn't wizardry but ease in you that startles one
To think: there is a gift for divinity some have
That arms their nature much as breathing does to imps
Fresh from the sea who wink and swallow air.
We rarely have the chance in life to take action
You did before that crowd in Florida who cheered
You for your excellence, Richard. Most jobs ask
At most for little theft and grudging competence.
You had known in football what most dream of doing:
How skilled one might discover one could be
If one brooks anguish, boredom, lassitude, despair
Garnering the dark frontier of one's high limitations.
I never knew your own. You seemed to take up anything
Effortlessly. I never saw you struggle for flawlessness.
You talked or sang or took up justice or consoled
With the same uncanny grace. It set your soul apart
Forever. You shifted your resolve from street to street.
Of many virtues I admired most your fearlessness.
You were master of bravery. You lacked enemies
But walking down a street with you was always perilous.
You shrugged at nothing, passed by no evil, sure
Like many old Americans who themselves, wrestling
With the fixed and riddling mysteries of nature
Whatever faced you though it howled with dragon's
Breath was not a monster but a spark of heaven
In cinder maelstroms all redeemable with virtue.
At least as athlete and wit, poet and singer, activist
And champion of all heartbroken you were in ways
Almost unfathomable to those who watched you act.
For someone who was naturally a hero you were humble
As few heroes are. You never bragged as churls do.
You found in enemies all sorts of hidden excellence.
You never seemed to notice rage and evil in your foes.
You felt an abstract sadness at the diffidence
And massy armor in the dominos of strangers.
You could make a demon feel for an amiable hour
He was nearly angel, a cracked soul almost honest.
There was no knot of mischief or deception in your nature.
If one had troubles you were there before they voiced them
Offering some sanguine consolation from your open heart.
There was nothing you did not take up and alchemize
With speed I found most startling. Casually, you brought
illumination to anything on Earth or beyond it.
Our jealous honor when we offer banal alms to heros
Is reductive; we hope satanically one day to trash
The real capacity they have for grace and singularity.
I'm sure that many fools had viewed you as a man
Most marginal in isles of the vaporous and hellish spirit
Coteries whose aim was often soporific tedium.
Amusingly, without respect for craven anthills
Or any trace you had been trying to become conventional.
You owned a house, were educated, married to a deep
And loving partner; well dressed, sober, you looked
While taking up prophetic byways, suave, adorned with wit
Confident as though you were a clubhouse regular
Among the cave cult, rife among some business folk.
At least you managed to appear bourgeois at first
If afterwards no one could miss your saintly nature.
among your many jokes this was your vintage jest.
Richard, now that you are elsewhere I regret
We never had a talk about some ancient moments
Of your emerald trek I'd have loved to hear.
How did you find the thorny trail to virtue?
What demons did you joust with in its blurry limits?
Had you eerie moments where your charity was breached?
I never asked you all these questions; yet I think
I might not easily have fathomed your clear replies.
You had skills that no one had and lots of them;
Who knows what sulphur crucible you commanded?
One could only guess the skill with which you used
Your brains. I could see your photographic memory
Your instant garnering off the core of any substance
The casual way you were at once magician, singer
Man of spirit, urbane wit, consoler, educator.
Did your facility mask a war with the Amelekites?
Richard I should have asked you. I will never know.
Your life was steeped in healing. Such action means
You were a doctor tending to a planetary hospital.
For years you'd told me of your strong adhesion
To the continent of Africa; it was a fiery jewel
Among your discourse. I couldn't hear at first
Too much beyond the words until I heard your fables
And your poetry. Then I knew you'd made a marriage
Not merely with nostalgia and its strong umbilicus
But real ancestral power, a feral vision alive
In a universe stuffed with three faerie worlds
Parallel, rife in some amiable ghostly commerce.
It blended with your modern urban side, your moral
Disciplines which set you with the desert voices
Echoing from skies where the Nameless thundered
Out his ethic in verses, stony revelations.
Wherever you are in heaven, you must love God;
He is like you a strange and involute comedian
Working the rubes and insiders with some style
In a rough and outland carnival. You and God
Are friends. It has to be. You the witty acolyte
Master of the mischievously ineluctable.
Enjoy your colloquy. We are less a bit of air
More remote from the table talk of the Throne.
Yet even here on Earth though we are mostly
Too busy looking for a place to eat, we know
In the end there is some miracle afoot when one
Who turns planet or star, even a mortal human
Whirling in this lightless envelope of ether
Sees he is not a mote of dust or dead jetsam
Spinning in infinity, imaginary stony thorns
Cleaving the emptiness interred in anthracite
At worst thinking it was conscious though
Mostly hunkering for spasms and brute terror.
Richard, when does that inner alchemy occur?
In childhood when one's small and febrile?
I doubt it. Your high credo comes from adult life
From knowledge of one's astral nature. Perhaps
One says, first alone in a chamber, then aloud
If only in a hiss, half scared, self-surprised:
"I am a star, I have the flint to generate fire.
I am in these nocturnal coves a vessel of light."
When you did this, in what weather I don't know.
I felt your warmth, the balm of much illumination.
Now that you have traveled much beyond this drop
Of a world most punished when its weaklings
Venomed with splenetic elixirs, are sluiced
With narrow malice you are free of poisons
That have turned our gut sour and dispirited.
Spleen excites its lacerated spirits often
To take up in a cauldron ires which ooze out
Vapors in a crimson pus: ichors of sour revenge
Lakes of mute despair, a huge boneyard of death.
In this perplexity where Ezekiel once said to God
Ambling beyond Pisgah: "Can these huge femurs live?"
Let me testify at least to what you left me, poet.
It's what you gave so many millions without stint.
The gift is clear; you offered it to simpletons.
I will always be a little braver than I was before
I met you one night on the D train many years ago.