LETTERS TO THE DEAD: THREE
I write to you my brother on a clear June day when the wind blows through the four tall pines in the yard with the sound that known souls make when they come to visit. I can hear you asking for and granting forgiveness. And peace.
Between 1970 and 1974 you were arrested three times. During that period you were mad like John Brown – called to do the work of the lord, his special messenger for righteousness and justice. Each time the police caught you, you were naked.
After you had been the maintenance man at the seminary where I was studying to become a priest, the Missionary Servants sent you to Birmingham, Alabama to work with “inner city” youth; in other words, help run the order’s new black football program that was tearing up the white league. You had been Brother De Sales for ten years but your erratic behavior made the priests ask you to leave the order. Even though you had not been in college for more than a decade you were able to get into pharmacy school and had started dating a woman from Owensboro, KY. You began to hear voices and have visions. During that time you lived near the railroad tracks and their night clankings made you think the Klan was taking all the black folk of Birmingham to the gas chambers. All night you ran naked through the streets, shouting and warning people about the death camps. You covered yourself with the black mud of a nearby lagoon and evaded capture until a glorious sunrise found you trying to get back into your girlfriend’s locked apartment.
Two years later, while you were a pharmacy intern in Louisville, it was the National Guard Armory where you painted peace signs on the Humvees and tanks parked there. In 1974 you were riding your bicycle (in your underwear) all the way from Paducah to the Trappist monastery at Gethsemani to talk with Thomas Merton who had been dead for five years. “ Just outside of New Haven a state policeman held me at gunpoint and I grabbed his weapon and threw it into the Rolling Fork River, thereby saving my own life and the soul of the officer,” is how you described it when I came to get you out of the Bardstown jail during that April 4th outbreak of tornadoes.
Your tumult would not end there but lithium helped to smooth out the rough edges of your manic-depression enough for you to function in your often chaotic world. The ecstatic highs of artistic vision and the down lows of alcohol addiction evened out into a kind of unmentioned grudge against the world. Sometimes you were close to me and other times far away. We communicated by sending poems to each other. I would send one to you and you would turn it over and write one back to me. In a box of old writings I found thirty-seven of your poems, one of which (with your permission) I will reproduce below.
Before you died nearly three years ago you had begun to forget certain aspects of your life. But I do not recount these events for the improvement of your memory, but to reestablish the bond of words that carried us through good times and bad. No matter our monumental disagreements (your own family was the hardest one for you to get along with), our mutual love of verse carried us through to an uneasy truce amid our genuine respect for each other’s craft.
See you soon,
by: Mike Lally (4/30/80, 3 a.m.)
We’ve not yet gotten over
Much less Viet Nam, Korea or
Like Zhivago we must ride
It out on a long winter’s
Train picking and choosing
Between two loves and
Deciding during the night
For a stale mate.
The ego of safe passage
Versus the superego of winning?
Or does one remember the id?