This morning, April 25, 2014, Bob Berner wrote his friends from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop of long ago that Vern Rutsala had died. I replied,
“This IS hard news, Bob,
“When I was at Iowa he, Mort Marcus and I were a little clan within the larger bunch. I'm the only one left, now. I'll put something up on my blog today.”
I have written often about Vern, most recently in a chapter of my book titled Dialects of the Tribe: Postmodern American Poets and Poetry, (Nacogdoches, TX: Stephen F. Austin State University Press, www.tamupress.com, 2012), and I dedicated the first edition of The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics in 1968, "To Vern and Mort and, in some ways, better days." He and I exchanged books over the course of our lives after Iowa, and I reviewed most of them in various periodicals and volumes. Back in the 'nineties for a while I was putting into a notebook particular lines from Vern's books that I ran across and particularly liked, and one day I sat down and wrote this poem:
On four lines by Vern Rutsala
The evening is carved of light.
One has watched here before, the view
of this bracken-edged meadow, the heather
lofting plumes into dusklight out of shadows.
One wonders what he has sought
in the meadows of deja-vu,
and on what occasions he has weathered
these asides of recall — and were there others?
For here an uncertain sleight
of sunlight settles itself like vows —
in the broken fields of sons and fathers —
taken, broken, retaken. Darkness stammers,
the linnet has gone to flight;
hours have fallen to clay review
and have sprung again. Out of ashen feathers
ancient summer uncovers ancient summers.
The evening is carved of light.
In the meadows of deja-vu,
in the broken fields of sons and fathers,
ancient summer uncovers ancient summers.
The lines I chose are the first, second, third and fourth lines of stanzas 1, 2, 3, and 4; they come together to create the fifth and last stanza of this five-stanza poem. Of course, I sent the poem to Vern and he liked it a lot. He went through his poems and found the poems that I had mined for the first three stanzas, but he couldn't find the fourth. He begged me to let him know which of his poems had been the source of the fourth line, but I hadn't jotted that information down as I was collecting the lines, and I couldn't tell him. I'm afraid he must have died before this little mystery was cleared up, and perhaps I will do the same.
In April of 2006 one of my former students at SUNY Oswego, Dennis Morton, who lived then and lives still in Santa Cruz, CA, together with his neighbor in town Morton Marcus, put together a reunion of the three Iowa Workshop friends in the Santa Cruz area. Vern and I were interviewed on KUSP-FM radio by Dennis and Mort, and we visited Robinson Jeffers' Tor House as well -- in this photo Mort Marcus is in the center, I am on his right, and Vern on the left:
Bob Berner’s email message included this memoir-obituary by Jeff Baker in The Oregonian:
Vern Rutsala, the gentle giant of Oregon poetry, died Wednesday. He was 80.
Rutsala was a National Book Award finalist and the author of more than a dozen books who taught at Lewis & Clark College for more than 40 years. He died two weeks after receiving the C.E.S. Wood Distinguished Writer Award from the Oregon Book Awards, its highest honor, "for an enduring, substantial literary career."
Rutsala's many books include "The Moment's Equation," his National Book Award finalist; "How We Spend Our Time," "Little-known Sports," "Ruined Cities," "A Handbook for Writers," and "Selected Poems," an Oregon Book Award winner. His many awards included a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Carolyn Kizer Poetry Prize, and two NEA fellowships.
"His special achievement," Norman Friedman wrote in "Contemporary Poets," is to have made the furniture of everyday bourgeois life in America available to the uses of serious poetry. He is thus somewhat like the better pop artists, . . . who [make] assemblages out of found objects. . . . With a few skillfully constructed figures, Rutsala can confront us with ourselves."
Rutsala was born in McCall, Idaho, in 1934. His father lost his farm during the Depression and the family came to Portland in 1942. They lived in Vanport and moved to California before returning to a home near Mount Scott. Rutsala graduated from Milwaukie High School and played quarterback and was student body president while beginning to write poetry and fiction. He went on to Portland State for a year, then transferred to Reed and studied with Kenneth O. Hanson. Drafted into the Army, he spent time in Germany as an M.P. and an editor of an Army newspaper.
He went to the Iowa Writers' Workshop but returned after a year and got a reference from poet Donald Justice that eventually found its way to William Stafford, already ensconced at Lewis & Clark. A three-quarter time job became full time after a year, "and I was there forever," Rutsala said in 2006. Rutsala helped start the creative-writing program at Lewis & Clark and was colleague with Stafford for more than 20 years. Rutsala said Stafford was a friend and an inspiration, and Rutsala was able to establish his own reputation despite Stafford's prominence.
Rutsala's first book, "The Window," was published in 1964. He was persistent, always working on five or six poems at once and keeping dozens in circulation until they landed at a magazine or journal. He lived in a book-stuffed house in Northeast Portland with his wife Joan, where they raised three children. He often wrote after midnight when his family was asleep and he had "a long stretch in front of me with nothing to do but write," he told Reed Magazine in 2006.
In that article David Biespiel wrote that "looking at him, immersed in poetry talk, a life-long student of the art, a believer in poetry's importance in human experience, I could see and admire that what has really mattered to him has been the writing, not the public scene.
"'I like to throw the blob of words on the page, then come back, maybe days later, to see what is still possible in the poem,' Rutsala said. "Then I'm able to shape it. Most language is trying to sell us something or deceive us. Poetry doesn't try to deceive."
Rutsala did not slow his writing pace after he stopped teaching at Lewis & Clark. He would send notes with recent publications and enjoyed the recognition from younger poets that came his way -- a special edition of a literary magazine devoted to his work, a tribute at a national writers' conference. He had a quiet manner that disguised a wry sense of humor. When I saw him at a literary function, sporting a huge white poet beard, I teased him about it and he said that he needed a new hobby in retirement.
As soon as he woke up he remembered the last thing that had happened before he lost consciousness. He had been sitting in his favorite chair in front of the television set watching the evening news. His wife had been sitting on the sofa watching as well in the parlor of their second-floor flat in the house that they had bought late in their lives and marriage. The news wasn’t good — was it ever? — but he and his wife were comfortable for the first time in their lives, and had been for several years of his retirement as pastor of the First Italian Baptist Church. They had lived in this small Connecticut city since 1939; their children had grown up and gone, gotten married themselves, one lived nearby — a toolmaker for Pratt & Whitney, the other in upstate New York — a college professor. The professor, the older boy, was the one he’d wanted to be a minister too, but that was not to be.
He remembered the sudden sharp pain in his chest, falling forward out of his chair, hitting the floor and then nothing until he had awakened.
No, that wasn’t right. He awoke, and still there was nothing.
There was no light, if he had eyes, only darkness. He saw nothing, he felt nothing, if he had fingers to feel with; he heard nothing — there was nothing to hear or, apparently, with which to hear. He could not breathe, nor did he need to even had there been something to breathe. He did not understand how he was able to think, if he were, indeed, thinking.
He lay awhile (was he “lying”?) attempting to do the things he remembered he used to do. He tried to shout, but he could make no sound, couldn’t have heard it if he had made one, had no mouth with which to utter anything. All he could do was recollect, feel as though he were going mad, experience despair and frustration for — how long?
The conclusion he reached was inevitable and inescapable: he had died in his parlor while watching the evening news on NBC. Until that moment he had been certain that when he died something would happen. He would awaken to the Life Beyond. He would be ushered into the Presence of his Maker. Glory would abound. Something certainly would happen, not nothing. It was impossible for Nothing to happen! Or, if it did, it would be impossible for him to experience it. He would simply be nothing.
Or had the ancient Greeks gotten it right? Was this Erebus? Was this the pure darkness of Tartarus, of the Underworld where the lost souls go to “live” in emptiness, without hope? When he was a boy living in Sicily, which the Greeks had colonized centuries before his own people, the Turks, had conquered that island, he had from time to time heard snippets and shards of Greek mythology. He had heard about Erebus and wondered about it.
And as a member of an unobserving Roman Catholic family, long before his conversion to Waldensian Protestantism, he had wondered about Purgatory. Had the Church adopted the Greeks’ Erebus, as they had adopted so many other things from paganism, like holidays and saints? Was this, then, Purgatory, which would prove that his concept of the afterlife had been erroneous, and his life, consequently, had been useless? What there was left of him, here, in this all-consuming darkness, despaired.
Would there be no end to this nothingness? Would there be no union with the Godhead, no reunions with those he had left behind, those who had preceded him? He tried to put out feelers, tentacles from his mind to test the blankness engulfing him. He felt that he would go mad, that he would like to go mad because he could not bear this soulless emptiness any longer. And how long had it been? It felt as though it had been eternal.
He could not believe it when he woke up again. But had he awakened? What was all this light?
The American TERZANELLE is a villanelle written in terza rima. Like the latter, it is nineteen lines in length: five interlockingtriplets plus a concluding quatrain in which the first and third lines of triplet one reappear as refrains. The center line of each triplet is a repeton reappearing as the last line of the succeeding triplet with the exception of the center line of the penultimate stanza which reappears in the quatrain. This is the rhyme and refrain scheme for the triplets: A1BA2 bCB cDC dED eFE. The poem may end in one of two ways: fA1FA2or fFA1A2. Every line is the same metrical length.
"I hate my name," Gladys told him after three drinks at the singles bar where they had just met. She was blonde and he was breathing hard, but it was clear that all she wanted to do was talk. They were all like that with him — at least the pretty ones.
"I'll find you the perfect new name," Mike said, "one that will suit your personality to a T." He took off his glasses to wipe the steam from them. The light was blue in the bar, and that was the way he felt.
"How?" Gladys was beginning to appear interested. She twiddled the swizzle stick in her drink and lifted her gaze from his paunch to his eyes.
"On the main frame parallel computers at Megatronics! I'm a programmer. But this is going to take some time and research," he said, trying to veil the glint of hope in his eyes. "I'll have to ask you some questions. Don't worry!" he hastened to say further, "It won't be much worse than joining a computer match club." In the pause that followed Mike could almost hear the tension that sizzled above the tables and booths of The Blue Martinis Lounge.
"You promise?" she asked at last.
Mike nodded his head so hard that drops of perspiration fell from his forehead onto the bar counter. He moved his arm as unobtrusively as he could to wipe them up with his sleeve. "When I've found you the perfect name you can have your old one changed legally."
"Okay. What do you want to know?"
Mike pulled out the pad and mechanical pencil he always carried, and he took notes until the wee hours. They finished just as the Lounge and Gladys' eyes were closing. "Drive you home?" he asked.
"No, thanks. I'll grab a cab." She picked up her purse and teetered to her feet. She gestured to the barkeep who reached for the phone.
"Well, how about we meet here in a week, next Friday? I ought to be done by then." She nodded vaguely. Mike hoped she would remember.
Over the rest of the weekend, and during all his spare time the rest of the week, Mike worked fiendishly on the program. It was as though he were inspired, under a spell — he had never worked better.
"I'd give anything to make this work," he muttered over and over under his breath as his pencil sped over the paper and his fingers poked at the keyboard. Mr. Harris, his boss, seemed impressed by his newly-found industry.
When Mike was done writing the program he fed every fact and statistic of Gladys' life into the company machine. In return the computer eventually came up with the perfect new name: "Laborna." Mike hoped like the devil that she would be grateful.
It turned out she was more than that, for when he met her at The Blue Martinis and pronounced the syllables of her new name she went stare-eyed, entranced. That weekend she did everything Mike asked — everything. With a passion. At her place.
It wasn't long before Mike realized he had discovered Gladys' Secret Name, and that the program he had written had made him her absolute master. "For Heaven's sake!" he said. "I wonder if it would work on any of the other girls."
He began to collect information from the personnel files at the company. It took a lot of overtime, but that looked good to Mr. Harris. When Mike had finished, he began to feed the data into the machine. Soon he had computed the Secret Name of every secretary in his department. And in every case all he had to do was to pronounce the appropriate syllables to make each of them his love slave.
All the heavy activity, both physical and mental, took its toll. While he was on sick leave Mike began to realize what a fool he'd been, though, to tell the truth, it had been worth it. He had enjoyed to the hilt the turnabout in the way the men at the office regarded him. Mike had gone in a stroke from wimp to superstud.
Nobody could understand it. Mike had basked for weeks in the envious and malicious stares of his fellow toilers as he walked among the desks with their flickering screens and humming printers.
It was only after he'd computed the Secret Name of Mr. Harris and received two quick and furiously discussed promotions that it began to dawn on Mike that he'd been frittering away the greatest discovery in the history of mankind. He thought that if word got out about his program — which Mike could not allow — he would receive the Nobel Prize. "In fact," he said to himself, "I'll make sure I get it anyway."
When he was back on his feet he began to proceed carefully and methodically with a plan he'd worked out in the hospital. Soon he was well on his way to ruling the world.
One day Mike was sitting in the Oval Office of the White House considering his next move. He'd been ruling the world for quite a while, but it still felt very good. He enjoyed the feeling of plush under his feet, the silent movements of the servants, the shine of the brass on the shoulders of the guards at the door. All this was too fine to lose, so Mike spent a great deal of time considering and reconsidering what he had to do to keep things going smoothly. He knew he had plenty of enemies who were waiting and looking for his weak spot. It was very annoying. It distracted him from his pleasure.
"Great bleeding Beelzebub!" he cried suddenly, overwhelmed by his blindness. "Defense!" How was it he hadn't thought of it before? It wasn't possible to control every individual in the world, so he ruled by controlling key people. "But what if someone from somewhere comes up with my own program? He could counter my power by discovering my Secret Name! I don't even know what it is myself!"
Even as he breathed the words Mike headed for the computer room trailing a double-timing cordon of colonels and generals behind him down the elegant White House corridors.
Into the machine — top of the line — Mike fed every fact and statistic of his being. Not even pausing to wipe the fog from his lenses, he pushed the Return key. Out of the printer there issued a single word, a name. Mike stared at it for a moment, then he cried, with wonder ringing in his voice, "Lafnot!"
Immediately there appeared before him in a cloud of fire a demon conjured by the syllables he had uttered. Mike gasped, "Well, I'll be damned!"
The Virginia Quarterly Review "The Mutable Past," a memoir collected in FANTASEERS, A BOOK OF MEMORIES by Lewis Turco of growing up in the 1950s in Meriden, Connecticut, (Scotsdale AZ: Star Cloud Press, 2005).
The Tower Journal Two short stories, "The Demon in the Tree" and "The Substitute Wife," in the spring 2009 issue of Tower Journal.
The Tower Journal Memoir, “Pookah, The Greatest Cat in the History of the World,” Spring-Summer 2010.
The Michigan Quarterly Review This is the first terzanelle ever published, in "The Michigan Quarterly Review" in 1965. It has been gathered in THE COLLECTED LYRICS OF LEWIS TURCO/WESLI COURT, 1953-2004 (www.StarCloudPress.com).
The Gawain Poet An essay on the putative medieval author of "Gawain and the Green Knight" in the summer 2010 issue of Per Contra.