The Night Street

for Herb Creecy

 

Ten years ago I drove down to Barnesville

to see my friend, the artist Herb Creecy,

who was dying of pancreatic cancer.

He chose this way to end up: No hospital. Horse spittle. No chemo,

lots of painkillers, with his son Lee nearby to help out.

He calls his friends on the phone, tells them what is going on,

how he loves them a lot. If they can, they come down to see him,

like me, sleep on his couch, leave the next day.

He has one half a ceremonial sip of the wine I brought.

Pinot noir. No drinking.

 

We sit at the kitchen table and talk.

As I pull up to his place in the woods, he opens the screen door,

comes out on the porch. Looks like Auschwitz, huh?

We’ll just turn the mirrors to the wall. Who needs ’em.

 

He couldn’t talk but half an hour. Then he’ d have to lie down

on the couch with his hands across his chest.

You look like a Tibetan monk. I’m getting holy

here toward the end.

 

One of the things we talk about: how, born when we were,

we missed out on all the drugs the kids do now.

Then I remember. In 1957, same year I had my first beer,

sophomore in college. I lived in a house with Wilson Cooper,

Bucky Bernard, and Al Salley, whose father owned

the big drugstore in Asheville.

 

Al kept a stash of Demerol that he would use for staying up late

to study for exams. Nobody ever thought back then

of any recreational use. I tried one one night to study

for Russian Proseworks of the 19th Century. I found

an empty basement room in the Chemistry Building

across the street, disappeared into deep ecstatic calm

and let the connections come. I took another Demerol

before the exam the next morning. It was not unusual

for the professor to read to the class from such an exam

when he gave back the papers. The brilliantly original insights,

drug-wisdom. Then Creecy remembered doing the same thing,

but with a difference. When his Demerol kicked in,

he couldn’t stay indoors. He had to get out and look at things,

talk to people, anybody. I went in. He went out.

You are a scholar, Coleman!

 

He meant mystic, I think, but Creecy had no use

for such a word. I do love going in, or I used to.

Whatever that means. Now I love Creecy’s having to go out

and walk the night street—walking around and talking to people

is so fine. Creecy and I had good late night conversations,

about all manner of thing: art, the impulse that generates it.

He loved carping at hypocrisy. That sonofabitch . . .

I sort of like him. No hospital, no chemo, so brave.

I don’t know if I will be up for that. We shall see.

 

I am such a long time here, ten years, getting around

to this elegy for Creecy. Elegy for Creecy! I hear him yell.

He loved to yell. Eulogy, elegy. I know what 

those preachy words mean—but for,

that’s the one I don’t know.

 

His tenderness, brilliance, inventive genius.

The wholehearted making. Herb was a huge hoot.

I have an actual brother named Herb, 80.

Creecy was a soul brother. How old was he when he died?

 

Here is something he would enjoy me putting in his elegy:

I am standing at my bookcase, first thing in my day,

taking the blood-thinner pills, naked at the low bookcase,

when I realize that I have been spraying a line of books.

Peeing unbeknownst. Which books? my scholar-self asks.

 

I’ll tell you which. I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On,

A Samuel Beckett Reader. Borges’ Selected Non-Fictions.

Swedenborg’s Dream Diary. Carl Jung’s Letters, 1906–1950.

I paper-towel them dry. No harm done, and my interest

in each is rekindled. I guess I am a scholar.

But a really bad one, flighty, no stamina.

 

Creecy would never open any of these books.

I would so love to see him walking in,

with his great love for being alive walking in,

or walking a night street. Where are you going?

I have no idea. Forward. Forward!

 

For several years, he painted only fighter planes landing

on aircraft carriers, from below. No reason, just

what he was doing, in his wholly total, unintellectual way.

 

I am so afraid of my upcoming death. So close.

But the death-fear never came up at that kitchen table,

or with him lying there hands crossed over his chest.

 

Maybe I’ll call Lee and ask for more details about how

those last days went. I need to write out my own death details.

Meaning how and where to lug the guts,

as Hamlet says of Polonius, having just killed

the poor sweet cliché-man.

 

I keep putting that off,

the calling of the death meeting with my two sons,

telling them how to take me to be cremated.

How to wash the body, what I would like

to wear in the fire.

 

How I want things divided up. Who cares?

However you want, no fighting.

But how to dispose of this is more delicate.

 

Coleman Barks is a native of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and was educated at the University of North Carolina and at the University of California, Berkeley. After early work on his own writing, Barks began in 1977 to collaborate with scholars of the Persian language to translate into American free verse the poetry of the thirteenth-century mystic, Jelaluddin Rumi. This work has resulted in twenty-two volumes, including the bestselling Essential Rumi (1995), Rumi: The Big Red Book (2010)—which collects thirty-four years of Barks’s work on Rumi’s ghazals and rubai— and most recently Rumi: Soul Fury: Rumi and Shams Tabriz on Friendship (HarperCollins, 2014). Barks taught American literature and creative writing at the University of Georgia for thirty years, and since his retirement he has turned more and more to his own writing—generous selections of which have appeared in our pages. His most recent collections, both from the University of Georgia Press, are Hummingbird Sleep, Poems 2009–2011 (2013) and Winter Sky: New and Selected Poems, 1968–2008 (2008). In 2005 the U.S. State Department sent him to Afghanistan as the first American visiting speaker there in twenty-five years, and in 2006 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Tehran. Barks has also been honored with the Juliet Hollister Award for his work in the interfaith area, and in 2009 he was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. He has two sons and five grandchildren, all of whom live near him in Athens, Georgia.