John S. Blake pays tribute to his friend, Tavis P. Brunson.
I have known unfathomable beauty. In New Jersey, I’ve welcome-kissed the crowns of two shivering newborns in delivery rooms. I’ve inhaled sweet cologne in Taos, New Mexico, after lightning splits a sage field open. My eyes have closed as my head rocked in Small’s Jazz Club in Manhattan knowing only an upright bass and the hiss of a high-hat brush. I’ve witnessed the sky try on ten shades of lavender evening gowns during a Venice Beach sunset. I’ve sat on a plateau in Sedona, Arizona, and admired a storm—a herd of sheep in slow flight—move across an empty desert, guiding their massive shadow on reins of rainbows. I’ve heard poems from voices that spoke in spite of the world wanting to silence them, written by children in detention centers who didn’t think they could write. I’ve spent entire summer days listening to the chorale of cicadas, believing I could hear the unique clicks and tones of each symphony member. I’ve stood on a street corner in New Orleans while a young man sat on his stoop and played his horn through the night. No one complained. I’ve wept at the silence of the Seattle Sound, where grays used the horizon as a catwalk as the sky and water were each other’s mirror. No experience can compare to the joy I’ve had as a friend to Tavis Brunson.
As a recovering addict, I have two impressions of many people in my life; those who avoided me while using, then welcoming our relationship now that I’m clean, and those I’ve met after getting clean who have a hard time believing stories of my wretched past. Tavis was neither. His were the hands of the clergy, always pressing my homeless back during a hug—whether I reeked of tequila and crack residue or I’d recently showered and was fresh out of detox. He used to say, “You’ll stop when you’re ready, but you’ll always be my friend, even when you’re an asshole.” As a New Yorker, I had no urge to ever migrate south, but Tavis was every rumor I’d ever heard about the Heaven that is southern hospitality. He was a gorgeous fusion of time, faith, and care for those he loved. His sarcasm—jack rabbit switch quick—kept me in a cackle during the darkest moments of my life.
I met Tavis in 2007 at the National Poetry Slam in Austin, Texas. We were “rivals.” He was a member of the Charlotte team and I was with Louder Arts in NYC. We joked throughout the night with empty threats and hyperbolic critiques of each other’s scenes. “Yo! Y’all New Yorkers … do you shoot bad poets while they’re still on the mic, or do you take ’em out back after?” And I said something to the effect of, “Do y’all sing ’cause it’s a church thing, or are you just addicted to gimmicks?” It was the first time he called me an asshole. I agreed and we became friends in the hottest dampest bar I’d ever sweat through.
Tavis’s laugh was electric. It was a constant. Tavis’s laugh turned corners before him. You could find Tavis in a crowd by listening for that throaty joy shaking the atmosphere. When I spoke with Tavis, I forgot many things and equally remembered other things. I forgot who died. I remembered who I loved. I forgot about war. I remembered who recently gave birth. I forgot what money I didn’t have. I remembered I had enough to get me in front of Tavis P. Brunson—to stretch a laugh like taffy for at least an hour—our backs throbbing, our mouths sore, eyes flooded with joyful tears—until someone found us, frustrated because we were supposed to be somewhere else.
Or were we?
I’m writing this in acute awareness of my privilege as a writer. I am listening to “Follow Me” by Aly-Us. The song is everything I loved about Tavis. If a room cradled Tavis, the room also cupped and rocked love. Tavis and I attended The Watering Hole Writers’ Retreat in South Carolina. Once, Tavis and I stood at the shore of Santee Lake in silence. I admired how much beauty he nursed with his eyes. We shared poems and laughed about my drinking days—resurrecting hilarity—playing back memories of people being offended with my blunt honesty combined with the backdrop of Tavis’ cackle:
“You did! You most certainly did tell that poet to ‘Stop sayin’ like! You killed similes for two years now!’ ”
“Tavis, it wasn’t that bad, was it?”
“Yes! Poor kid walked with a hunch for a year after that.”
And the tears fell as we sat on a deck.
What Tavis and I joked about most was football: he, a Dallas Cowboys fan, and I, a NY Giants fan. Both in the same division, both worthy adversaries. Tavis would shout at me, “Respect the Star!” And I’d respond, “Fuck your star and you!” And we’d laugh. I have a voicemail of Tavis wishing me a happy birthday: “Hey, this is Tavis, fuck the Giants, just wanting to wish you, respect the star, a happy birthday, the Giants suck, and tell you I love you, fuck your team.”
We’d kept up with each other—since his health began declining—using Glide. We’d been sending videos back and forth. Tavis sent videos of himself in the hospital and demanded I tell no one. He never wanted to be a burden and never wanted to be the cause of anyone’s sadness. Once in a while, he’d send me a video of his Dallas Cowboys cap and I’d send a corresponding video bringing attention—not to the star on the front—to the massive width of his cap, suggesting the doctors check for a mass that made his head that big. He’d send a video of his laugh, then abruptly stop, and demand, “Respect the star, dammit.”
Tavis didn’t know he was the star I respected. He is the star I demand tribute to in all of us for 2017. He was the resolve that pushes us all to embrace our humanity. He is the frolicking friendships and the sibling rivalries. Tavis was a church hymn in a dive bar. His laugh. His laugh. His laugh.
In 2007, when Charlotte won the National Poetry Slam and I found myself sulking after Finals, Tavis found me. He said, “If you would’ve performed on final stage, we might have lost. MIGHT have.” And we’ve laughed with each other ever since.
Today, I respect the Star, Tavis P. Brunson—who’s kept me winning at life as long as I had his brotherly love. Let the angels sing. And in the spirit of the poet, the preacher, the beautiful black man that was Tavis P. Brunson, let us not be the cause of each other’s sadness. Let us share poems by water. And in the name of whatever Deity swims your soul, let us laugh until the tears resemble April.