Saul’s Gifts, Part Two

(The July/August 2011 issue of The Country and Abroad has published my earlier reminiscence about my late friend and mentor, Saul Bennett. There’s one more piece to the story…)

Saul’s Gift, Part Two

I dreamed I stood outside my death row cell in my orange suit feeling content and serene. I’d made my bed. I’d enjoyed my lunch. It was my poor friend, Mikhail Horowitz, the poetry comedian with curly hair and bottle thick glasses, who appeared distraught as he gave me my last hug on earth. “This is harder for him than it is for me,” I thought in sympathy. “In an hour I’ll be dead.” But the moment he vanished around the corner I panicked. “Wait!” I wanted to shout. “Who will ever read the poems on my computer?”

Rarely are dreams so direct. I’d spent two long afternoons on Saul’s Macintosh in his little study beyond the bathroom in his rustic Woodstock house. Not long before, we’d wiled away an August afternoon upstairs at Joshua’s, editing our poetry together. Saul told me he’d added several new pieces to Sea Dust, his beloved manuscript, which like a cat was on its sixth or seventh life, getting stronger after each travail. Several years earlier, the publisher of his first two poetry books had requested Sea Dust but then fallen into financial distress. A few rounds later, Jonathan Galassi, the publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, had sent a complimentary rejection note. But now Saul felt blessed not to be stuck with those premature versions. The latest Sea Dust was so much truer to his evolving feelings about poetry. It wasn’t just that certain poems which had been printed flush left were now centered into hourglass shapes. It was, I suspected, that Saul was having fresh feelings about God in those quiet hours he focused on fiddling with the handfuls of words he’d committed to the page. In his late fifties he’d been “shocked into poetry,” as he put it, by the sudden death of his oldest daughter at 24. New Fields and Other Stones: On a Child’s Death was his book of slashing grief. His second, Harpo Marx at Prayer, recovered the long lost world of his boyhood in Sunnyside, Queens in the 1940s, an exotic province where kosher delis served sour green tomatoes as the Flushing El rattled overhead. An earlier shock examined in that book had been the loss of both parents during his early twenties. Sea Dust didn’t neglect those stories, but it did venture in new directions and find lighter emotions, even joy. Saul was now writing poems in the bathtub. He was producing whimsical reveries about, say, August baseball. He was hearing Muses besides Loss and Grief. Most exciting to him, he was composing a series of poems that imagined his beloved Gerard Manley Hopkins traveling to America in the late 1800s. Hopkins had been a British Jesuit priest, of course, while Saul’s poems were thick with his New York Jewish heritage, but I think that in all the white space that comes with poems Saul was finding connections to Hopkins and God that lay beyond words.

Then Saul had done the unthinkable. Three days after our marvelous afternoon at Joshua’s he collapsed on his kitchen floor late on a Sunday afternoon. The 911 ambulance arrived within minutes but too late. In retrospect, I might have been concerned about his health. He’d been suffering fainting spells and getting tests. But hell, at Joshua’s we’d been laughing—both of us, laughing—as he told a tale of the Woodstock Library where he’d fainted the first time and been driven down to the Kingston hospital. Since then, all of his tests had found nothing wrong. When he’d returned to the library to thank them for being so kind, he’d fainted again, as if on auto-suggestion, as if he was an unwitting character in a Marx brothers routine. How funny, we’d agreed. Not once had I imagined Saul dead, not like my aging father, for example, who uses a hearing aide and walks cautiously as if the ground everywhere is icy under his feet. Not Saul. He still had dark hair and a lean physique, a sprightly energy that got him hopping out of chairs or walking the hill for exercise. Though almost seventy, he was young. He wore cherry red Converse high top sneakers to the Woodstock Poetry Society on Saturday afternoons as his stepping out shoes.

Days after his death I sat down to Saul’s Mac. What I found was that he had a haphazard way of creating files, perhaps reflecting a befuddlement with computers. He was, after all, a man who drafted poems long hand on yellow legal pads and displayed his antiquated but treasured typewriter in his living room alcove along with favorite books as his informal poetry shrine. There was no Sea Dust 6.0 on the Mac. There was a jumble of poems in conflicting versions. I opened every file and succeeded only in confounding myself Where were the new Hopkins poems? Where was the latest version of Sea Dust that had given Saul such pleasure at Joshua’s? I’d lost a dear friend. Now I’d lost his book, too.

So I knew what that dream meant. For years, I’d put off assembling my best poems into a manuscript because I dreaded discovering that what had pleased me in the past would now need revising for the umpteenth time. My poems reflected a long history of not getting things quite right. But now I had a fear greater than my fear of revisiting old work. I began revising. And I persisted. Almost a year to the day of Saul’s death, I e-mailed my manuscript to a small poetry press. The next day the publisher replied: “I was in a reading mood when I received your manuscript. I read it immediately. That doesn’t happen often. I love it and am sending out an acceptance almost as fast as I ever have.”

That death row dream was Saul’s gift from the great beyond. My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse, my book dedicated in part to Saul, found its way into the world. Saul once wrote, not realizing that he, himself, would become a samaritan to me:

Samaritan on a Bridge

Poetry came for me
late. It led me
off the bridge. It showed me
home when it, not I,
knew where home was.
It stayed up reading
my blood, hectoring
my soul. I felt enrolled
in its gospel
of submission.

(Saul Bennett, 1937—2007)

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