Marilyn Crispell performs for the late poet Frank Parker

My friend, Marilyn Crispell, the jazz pianist, leads a bifurcated life. In Woodstock, where she’s lived for thirty years, she’s a homebody kept busy by errands and chores, which includes spending hours on the computer arranging her concert tours. She also watches after her cat and regularly entertains visiting friends from Europe. As a homebody myself, I’ve gotten to know her through our weekly respites at Tuesday evening yoga followed by dinner at our local Indian restaurant, where we’ve often closed the place down—at 8:30 pm. If you’re a night owl like Marilyn, Woodstock is pathetic. She’ll return home to play some piano, talk on the phone with her musician friends (who all seem to be night owls), watch a DVD. She’s even done her gardening at night. For several years, I’ve been urging her to hike with me up Overlook Mountain under a bright moon, but so far she’s chuckled and insisted that she couldn’t make it up that mountain even in daylight.

Then she packs her small suitcase and flies off to Norway or Australia or Madison, Wisconsin for her other life as an internationally acclaimed improvisational pianist. To me, few things in life rival listening to the wildly gorgeous vitality she brings out of that keyboard, weaving and surging between pounding out mad clusters of chords into a crescendo that exhausts itself into plucking on solitary notes of ethereal quietude before building towards the next stampede at the loud end of the keyboard. She’s a full spectrum performer. By the end of the show I feel as if I’ve been on an emotional journey as sweeping as that of reading a novel. She deserves all the praise we can give her. After a week or three of touring, hopping on plane flights between cities, touristing at parks and museums, visiting with friends, she returns home to Woodstock jet lagged but fresh with stories and insights into parts of the world that I’ll probably never see except on her iPhone photos.

When she invited me to join her on a short trip to Tucson, Arizona in January 2010, I took her up on the opportunity to visit the desert Southwest, where I’d enjoyed camping adventures in the past. As luck would have it, we were hosted by the local poetry community, for Marilyn performed on a double bill with Ron Silliman, a prominent L=A=N=G=U=A= G=E poet (and blogger) from Philadelphia. (Is Marilyn’s improvisational music to jazz what L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E is to poetry, i.e., a deliberate fracturing of familiar meanings and patterns? If so, I don’t notice it. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E remains intriguing but alien to me. Marilyn’s music goes down easily.)

Our final night in town we were taken to dinner in a homely Mexican restaurant at the edge of Barrio Viejo, a historic district of Sonoran-style adobe houses that has gone artsy with colorfully painted walls and loving restorations of what was once essentially a Mexican village surrounded by a frontier city. After dinner we spent the most enchanting hour exploring this moonlit neighborhood led by our guide, Frank Parker, a silver-haired mensch, who was the sound engineer for the poetry group that sponsored the show, a musician, a printer, and a poet in his own right. After living for decades in Monterey, California, he’d moved to Tucson in 2003 to be near his son. The most magical spot of all was the empty lot next door to the restaurant. It had nothing more than a rear wall with a stone mantel and fireplace. Dozens of candles waved their fragile little flames from their wax-melted spots before the fireplace or up on the mantel or wall. El Tiradito, or Wishing Shrine, was the name. Supposedly, it’s the only shrine in the country dedicated not to a saint or a religious hero, but to a sinner, a young sheepherder murdered in the 1870s for being in a love triangle. If your candle burns through the night into the morning your wish will come true.

Marilyn only met Frank on that one trip. But they soon became Internet friends. (From her travels, she has collected friends from around the world.) This past September he died of cancer, a loss not unexpected, since she knew he was in hospice, but one that’s still shocking and sad. She’d spoken to him a week earlier by phone. He’d sounded fine. He’d read her a poem twice because she’d liked it so much “I told him I might perform in Tucson again in January,” she recalls. “He said, ‘So that’s a reason to be alive.’ ‘You better be there,’ she replied.” Alas, he won’t be.

On Thursday evening, October 27th, Marilyn will perform a concert webcast at 7:30 pm from a soundstage in Woodstock. (The show will be available as a video-on-demand for 30 days after the performance.) She dedicates the performance to Frank Parker. Here are four of his poems that she’d like to share.

The first is from his book, Win Po, which she explains is not the name of a heretofore unknown classical Chinese poet but a bit of graffiti that tickled his fancy.


for Michael McClure

gray dove up
green mesquite

branches spread
tiny leaves


in eye
and I

breathe deep
blue sky

feathered edge
of nitrogen

and oxygen
exploding stars


The next two are from a section of Heart Shaped Blossoms called “Wild with Spring:”

a flute the moon a tiny heart
sleepless music on the water
all there is everywhere at once
and anywhere you point points back
to you at the speed of light
name this thing a separate being
in a crisis of perception
who is whose reflection

* * *

words go out
I hear my heart
a red crown
in a dark sea
pages of morning
white fingers cup
the wind all night

And a final poem from Heart Shaped Blossoms:

our bodies the sun

mornings dressed for church

leave me drum my songs

the heart shaped blossoms

when I’m not there to see

plum leaf butterfly wings the breeze

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