In Memoriam: Bill Everson

Lee Bartlett

 A few nights ago my daughter Jennifer and I read poetry for the first time together at a benefit group reading for the Outpost Performance Space in Albuquerque. It was a weird evening and the event went on for hours. I arrived home in Placitas just after midnight and Elizabeth was waiting up, something obviously wrong. Allan Campo had called about seven with the news of Bill’s death, she told me, then gave me a gentle kiss on the cheek and mercifully slipped off to bed without saying anything more. I went into the study and opened the day’s mail, which included a copy of Blood of the Poet (edited by Albert Gelpi), Bill’s just published selected poems. Its arrival that particular afternoon would have been of more than passing interest to him--he of course would have called it a "sign"--and for a moment, I reflexively started to go to the phone to give him the news.

* * *

I’m not sure that many of even Bill’s closest friends knew that he had a keen interest in sports, and certainly there is little in the poetry on the subject. He played sandlot football as a kid, and in the later 1920s played on the Selma High School varsity team. "I came into my own in football when I was a junior," he told me during one of our interviews for the New Directions biography. "I made the first string as tackle, and by my senior year I was carrying my own weight. One day in practice that year I hit a dummy so hard that I broke the pulley holding it up. The coach stopped everything and said to everyone, ‘Look at that, Bill has drive.’"

His first wife Edwa was a physical education major at Fresno State College and won the college tennis championship one year. She taught Bill to play tennis, which became one of his quiet passions, and even years later in the novitiate at Kentfield he spent a few afternoons on the priory’s tennis courts rallying with Rose in his monk’s robes. I used to be a fairly serious amateur tennis player, and Bill would often call on Sunday night to get details of a weekend tournament in which I’d participated. He was particularly fascinated with, first, Jimmy Connors and, later, John McEnroe--both of whom, he felt, derived their prowess from "the power of the negative"--and as he had no television at Kingfisher Flat, he would expect me to keep him updated on the Grand Slam events.

Once Bill stayed a full extra day with me after a reading at UC Davis so that he could see a televised Ali fight, and on another occasion we slipped off together to the Santa Cruz version of a sports bar--he of course in full buckskins and bear claws--to watch Joe Montana lead the Forty-Niners to their first Super Bowl victory. This was particularly sweet as we were both native Californians and had suffered through at least a decade in which the team was generally so bad that they couldn’t give tickets away on game day. It’ll come as no surprise to his readers that Bill took that first Forty-Niner Super Bowl win as an indication that the East was breathing its last while the West was on its ascendency.

* * *

On his last trip to New Mexico in the later 1980s, Bill’s Parkinson’s disease had taken a severe toll--he had trouble speaking, and while he could more or less still walk, he needed help getting dressed, getting in and out of chairs, pretty much with everything.

A few months earlier I had told him of a Sunday afternoon visit to the northern New Mexico village of Chimayo. Centuries earlier, the Tewa Indians had come to regard this site as a holy place where, according to legend, fire, smoke, and hot water once gushed forth from the center of the earth, leaving a mud which could be used for healing; they called it nam po’uare, "blessed earth." In the early nineteenth century, Spanish inhabitants built a small church over the pit of sacred earth, and soon the Sanctuario became an important Catholic pilgrimage, the only one in the American Southwest to express itself in geophagy, or clay eating. On that Sunday afternoon I had found myself in the midst of scores of pilgrims--many seriously crippled or inform--who had passed through the Santuario’s door to kneel at the pit in a small room to the left of the church’s main altar for a taste of the tierra bendita. Its healing powers were said to be very great.

Now, not long after he got off the plane, Bill asked if we might take a drive to Chimayo (which is about an hour north of Placitas), the following morning after he had rested. I do not want in to into much detail here about his visit to El Sanctuario, as it was obviously a seriously private occasion for him. I will simply say that we stayed in the primary chapel for about a half-hour while Bill knelt in prayer, then proceeded to the pit where he again kneeled and put his lips to the earth. As he rose he took a bit of the dirt into his hand and wrapped it in a small sheet of paper which he thrust into his pocket. He had been silent since entering the chapel, and said absolutely nothing on the drive home or through the rest of the evening. The following day he woke energized, and that afternoon he gave a powerful reading to a very large audience at the university--able to stand at the podium by himself and hold his own text, and his voice was resonant and clear. The only comment he ever made to me about the experience was on the phone about a week later. I asked him how he was feeling and he said, "Great!" After a pause he followed with, "The only thing as strong as Catholic magic is Indian magic, and when you mix them together--watch out!"

* * *

[Notebook Entry, December 30, 1988. Left for San Francisco in the early morning and drove down the coast road to Davenport to see Bill and Susanna. We were only able to stay about an hour, but Bill had time to show me his new study--the converted carport A-frame. When we drove up, [his son] Jude was inside practicing with his rock band .... The highlight was standing in the studio an having Bill show off a copy of his new, slipcased, Robinson Jeffers volume, Point Lobos, for which he had written the introduction. We stood about fifteen minutes as he lovingly turned each folio page, without a single comment. Because of the Parkinson’s his hands trembled throughout, but he made it all the way through. After, I asked him if he was pleased with the book. He told me that whenever he walks into the study, he genuflects before it in awe.]

* * *

We were usually pretty serious with each other, but not tediously so. As other friends will attest, Bill had a terrific sense of humor, and he seemed to particularly relish mildly dirty jokes in which the punch-line included some declension of "fuck." He also appreciated pranks.

At an annual Modern Language Association Convention a few years back--they all run together to an extent, but I think it was Chicago--I found myself at the W.W. Norton reception visiting with a small gathering of younger poets/scholars over drinks. Charles Bernstein arrived and sauntered over to our group, wearing new glasses in very hip red frames. Though we corresponded occasionally and he had recently contributed a fine essay to American Poetry, the last time we had seen each other was when he had given a reading/lecture at the University of New Mexico probably two years before. I knew he was up for a major position in poetry/poetics at Buffalo previously held by Bob Creeley, and he seemed a little wired. I was in the puckish mood that somehow only an MLA Convention can generate, and after a few pleasantries (and a crack about the glasses) I asked him if he had heard about Creeley’s new Adidas deal; he stopped dead in his tracks and gave me one of those intense Bernstein stares. To fully appreciate this, you should know that Bob Creeley was leaving his position for an even better situation--he would stay connected with Buffalo, he had written me, but basically stop teaching and travel around the world giving readings and lectures, all funded by an endowment from, of all things, Mrs. Paul’s Fishsticks. So my sudden insider’s scoop on the poet’s tennis shoe endorsement contract probably seemed rather plausible, and Charles was hooked. I developed the story for a couple minutes: Creeley would be provided with a dozen pair of Adidas, and he would wear them at all performances, as well as in all publicity photos; he would wear a warm-up jacket with the Adidas logo to and from all readings/lectures, as well as a baseball cap with logo in all future book dustjacket photographs. For this he would receive a hundred thousand a year and a white Camaro Iroc, with a license plate which read, of course, Adidas I. Well, Bernstein eventually caught on to the joke and broke into a grin (a few months later, by the way, he got the Buffalo Chair, much deserved).

In any case, on my return I called Bill and told him this story. In his relative seclusion, he had never heard of Bernstein or Language Poetry, but he really seemed to love the story. For the next many months his running joke was to call and tell me one or another of his own versions: that he had just signed with Nike--they would underwrite an international reading tour if he agreed to wear their sweatpants; or that Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream was starting a line of "archetypal flavors of the month," all named after his poems; or that he had just signed on as, this was particularly amusing, the new Colonel Sanders to promote Kentucky Fried Chicken’s new line--"River-Root Runts." Life really is often way weirder than art, however. I’m sorry that Bill didn’t live long enough to see last night’s premiere of the new high-tech Nike television spot featuring Old Bull himself, William Burroughs.

* * *

This is the last piece I expect to write on Bill or his work, and I want to say that I feel blessed to have been allowed such a unique place in his life over the past twenty years. As I wrote in an essay for Perspectives on William Everson, we first met by chance in late 1974 just before a reading poet/novelist Bill Hotchkiss (Bill’s good friend who would become his literary executor) had arranged for him at Sierra College. I was twenty-four, married with a daughter, and had left a two-year teaching stint at a Catholic boys boarding school in the Central Valley to enroll in Ph.D. studies at UC Davis. I wrote Bill not long after our meeting, and his reply--the first of some three hundred letters over the next two decades--is dated January 2, 1975, inviting me to visit him at his home on Big Creek in the Santa Cruz Mountains. A few weeks later, I took him up on the invitation and spent the day with him, partly at Kingfisher Flat, partly at UC Santa Cruz, where he was teaching his Birth of a Poet course. Over the years I returned to Big Creek countless times and spent three days with Bill at an MLA Convention where Diane Wakoski had arranged for a special section devoted to his work. I traveled with him to Berkeley, Davis, and Portland. He made two trips out to my place in the high desert of New Mexico.

Bill was always infinitely generous. He gave me inscribed copies of most of his books and broadsides (including a number of rare limited editions), sent me drafts of pretty much all of his writing for comment (as well as drafts of very early poems, which he would occasionally find among his papers, for my collection), asked for and gave advice on personal matters, stood as godfather for my youngest daughter Marisa, and gave me complete access to his restricted collections at both the Clark Memorial and Bancroft libraries. In March of 1979, I was flat broke and stranded with my wife and children in Bordeaux, where I had been teaching for minimal salary; fearing that I would very literally not be able to buy the proverbial groceries, a letter from Bill suddenly arrived and out fell a birthday gift of two hundred dollars in cash. He introduced me to both Robert Duncan and Albert Gelpi; I introduced him to Karl Shapiro and Nathaniel Tarn. I was able to see him honored as Artist of the Year in Santa Cruz in 1991, and the following year I flew out to Kingfisher Flat for his gala 80th birthday party. While Bill and I had almost no communication during the last months of his life due to the severity of his illness and my own depression over the sudden death of my daughter Emma, for most of our twenty years we spoke on the telephone on average probably three times a week.

As I say, I was blessed.

As one of his few Catholic friends after leaving the Order (Fr. Finbass Hayes, Albert Gelpi, and Allan Campo were others), Bill spoke to me frequently--usually after a couple shots of Jack Daniels--about his relationship to God and the Church. He had deeply mixed feelings about separation from the Dominicans. It was always obvious to me that his eighteen years as Brother Antoninus were for him the most intensely lived and profoundly productive of his life, and, after his breakup with Susanna, we talked half a dozen times about the possibility of his return to St. Albert’s and the Order. He revealed to me that only his pride was standing in the way.

* * *

I am told that Bill is to be buried midst his friar brothers in the Dominican cemetery in Benecia, not far from his beloved Pacific. I hope this is true, and especially, that he knew it at the last--it would have given my good and intensely loyal friend peace without measure.

[June, 1994]

 [In preparation, pending authors’ permissions: essays by Albert Gelpi, Bill Hotchkiss, Robert Hawley, and Allan Campo, among others.]

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