In some ways, what I really did was mind the store: Lawrence Ferlinghetti in flight over Iron Mountain, Michigan, and feet on the ground on his death day.
When Ferlinghetti’s reading ended, we searched for the doors at the university center, following the maestro in his death-defying leap into the snow. It was a parade to the parking lot, the wind blew in across Lake Superior, and shook the street signs. He didn’t care what story he was walking into, Jack London or Thomas Wolfe, for he could no longer return to his real home of a boy, but wherever he was going he could have a few drinks there to remember those days of flappers and flat bosoms.
He had been modest, bold, soft spoken, and a real human being, but with that boyish shyness peeping from the collected pages of poems he read one after another as if he were in a hurry to catch a Greyhound bus. But no bus would motor away from the Queen City in this blizzard. He was flying out in a Cessna like the way he arrived flying over the snowfields of northern Wisconsin, ceiling zero, skies made of white sheep, and dreaming of what we may never discover. Poetry returned him to the past, the abstract language of long legs found on women, the benches in the Tuileries, and his Aunt Emily whom his mother bequeathed to raise as a citizen of the world. All the big houses they lived in until there were no more rooms.
I wanted to buy one of his books but had no money. He had hefted the holy cross of poetry that night onto the stage, and like an acrobat climbed on rime to a high wire. Beauty waited with gravity in her seat, and his sleight-of-feet tricks managed to amaze the audience, as if they were at a circus where even elephants waltzed through. His most valued book was T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, where all time was unredeemable and footfalls echoed, mostly Monsanto’s in pursuit of Old Possum through those doors he opened, hoping to be the greatest poet on earth, who Aunt Emily looked after during those Paris days of parades and whose birthday was the year after the Armistice and millions had been slaughtered by a virus and artillery shells.
He didn’t talk about any of that, he walked the high wire, peered into the faces of coeds, trembled mentioning Cocteau or Cezanne, was bearded and tall, bald, of course, as if he had agreed to be so after a certain age. He’d suddenly remember he was a poet and peered down on a page caught in the spotlight, or pretend he was no one at all and would like only to feed the pigeons outside the cathedral.
He wore a fisherman’s sweater, signed poetry books like a tattooist, each frontispiece like skin, his pen demanding that the book would open up quietly and for the purchaser to provide a name—a whispered surname, the fog of a first one, murmured, mumbled, and then something short like one bullet aimed at the heart—and he’d hand it back to you.
Ferlinghetti walked out into the snow with his hostess, a smiling girl with large teeth and freckles spattered like a painter couldn’t make up his mind, but that only meant something else—the world was a beautiful place if you didn’t mind people dying all the time—she directed her teeth toward a place where her car was rumored to have been buried, one upward twist her arm, her scarf flying around her neck, and the poet with his Afghanistan hat proceeded ahead with his long stalky legs like a poem Mayakovsky might have penned under the scrutiny of the Russian police and to sign it in blood before he hung himself.
42 Years Later
His usual coffee tasted strangely, and there’s a silence outside on Columbus Avenue. He’s searching for the San Francisco Chronicle which he lays out over his lap, like a bib of newsprint. On the small table, it seemed to have grown even smaller, as if someone were redesigning reality, his usual apple muffins weren’t there. The knife to cut it down the middle gone. He didn’t remember waking up either, for he could just be sleeping still, like a Cocteau character who chooses to return to the Underworld. He heard Aunt Emily telling him he should sleep, but how many years ago did she disappear one morning to never return.
He rubbed his eyes apart, blindness was a normal thing for him, but was that Cocteau sitting on his couch about to speak? He spoke in French to Cocteau who merely pulled out an opium pipe to smoke, his hair raised several inches above his brow like a separate dwelling place. Was that itch between his legs, one hairy sac more troublesome than the other, back again? Cocteau called to him in some words that weren’t any language, almost like a blizzard of sounds. But he recognized them finally as his own, once written many years ago after visiting the Upper Peninsula of Michigan:
The sky cleans itself
and the stars come out
in the total darkness.
He remembered coming out of the reading into the snow, thinking he’d live forever, but some forty years had passed since his hostess took him by the hand, out to the car they had to dig out before driving to the party.
Dead was also being born. He suspected he had no more beans to grind, as well. If he could grind a fresher cup of coffee, he’d choose beans from Ecuador, but nothing gets ground. He has written his last sentence, he thought but didn’t recall when: on top of a letter from Paris using the envelope (which was probably in Little Boy) but still remembered his very first memory of existence being held on a balcony above the boulevard in Paris where a parade was going by. Or a poem felt on the back of his neck when he stared at a young woman’s bare legs crossed in a chair: that snowy distance of skin made him feel like an Arctic explorer during a conversation with the buxom blonde who said her name was Marilyn. Her wiggling ass when she rose from her chair to perform for him the simple activities of opening up his mail addressed to Lawrence Ferlinghetti at 260 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco, shaved off at least fifty years of his life.
Now, all the correspondence will be forwarded to the Afterlife, and if Beauty wanted to speak with him she would have to promise to never look at him directly, or the Great Poet would disappear in another Magic Trick, where no one would suspect of him eating violins or being rude to naked nudes. But she can still pose for another painting of his, if she takes off her clothes and stands very still in a scene where he’s painting her soul, he considered, floating through his room until his feet hit the ground on his death day.
His Knees Are Green from Kneeling in Paradise
For Lawrence Ferlinghetti
On his feet finally, taller than he ever
remembers standing, his piano waits for him
in the corner, an imaginary etude he can play
with his eyebrows.
Or that last poem
the maid will discover in his underwear drawer
and sell for ten thousand dollars.
In her spate of vacuuming horror, she will
wait to translate into her native language.
The blind poet, a little unsteady on his feet
and wearing the same pair of pajamas,
curses after his unearthly alarm clock hollers,
reaches for the morning newspaper
and hears a hill of poetry, an ear of a phone
ringing for him to know that he’s dead.
Dear Lawrence, don’t answer that call,
for they will demand everything of you today.
Like the last unobtainable star of the morning.
Columbus Avenue its own constellation
of ongoing electricity, the street hawkers
and midnight walkers; Monsanto wanted to sleep
a little longer. That San Francisco Giant
baseball game went into extra innings;
every mitt seemed to have holes
for the balls that invented a new mode
of traveling all the way to the fence—
and, of course,
Aunt Emily is shaking him again in Paris,
if you don’t rise you will miss the lovely French
of that American girl who came to Paris
to capture you in her own poetry.
His French period gave him acrobats
and love for Cocteau and an eternal genius.
Time flicks out its tricky whip,
and he’s pretty sure he wrote that line.
—Russell Thorburn, author of Somewhere We’ll Leave the World (Wayne State University Press)
(Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 2012 at Caffe Trieste by Christopher Michel, photo by Cmichel67, CC BY-SA 4.0)