61. Memory and the Poet

EVERY YEAR AT ABOUT this time I remember Preston McInnes, for it was at the end of winter that we first met, in a veteran's hospital in Washington DC in the mid-1970s. I was in rehab after an operation on my spine, and he was recovering from napalm burns to most of his body and head. Even his eyes were bandaged, which meant he couldn't read. I asked him what he did outside of the army and he told me he was a poet. Did I read poetry, he asked? Yes, I said, and when I recited my list of favourite poets, a list which included Adrienne Rich and Wallace Stevens, he took me under his wing, even though he was only a handful of years my senior. Moreover, he had never read Adrienne Rich, he said, but he could tell from my description of her work and her life that she was a worthy poet. I asked if I could read his poetry and he said he could do better than that. He began to recite poem after poem, beginning each poem the same way: "This one's called...", he'd say, and clear his throat, and launch into recitation. The memory of him reciting his poetry with half of his head wrapped in hospital gauze and his arm in a sling seems strange to me now, but it was a measure of the strange webs in which we were all entangled at the time that it seemed like the most natural thing in the world back then to be in a veteran's hospital reciting your poems to one of your fellow patients. Each time I asked to see his poems he would say, "This one's called...", clear his throat and burst once more into recitation, so that one morning I felt obliged to interrupt and said, "No, Pres, on paper, dammit, show me the things on paper. I've got to see 'em written down, you bastard." You can't see them, he chuckled. I asked him why not. "Because they're all up here," he replied, gently padding his bandaged head with his bandaged hand. They were not written down, he explained, and began a more or less unintelligible ramble explaining why - something to do with publishing companies and the government. Clearly his political theories were insane, even by the standards of the day, but the poetry seemed good, very good even, at least to the ear. He worshipped Ezra Pound, who even by then no one read anymore, but you could hear the cadences of Dylan Thomas and the verve of Ginsberg. There was an over-reliance, perhaps, on metaphor, but the almost meaty pleasure he took in language was infectious, his turn of mind more often than not disarming and seductive, his style punctuated by repeated stumbles of doubt that turned his poems into lists of uncertainty, each one an occasion to pin a new truth to the imagination like an exotic butterfly mounted in a display cabinet. In the far corner of the expansive dormitory that hosted a passing parade of mutilated veterans, Preston and I thus lay side by side in our hospital beds for several months, amused and disconsolate in turn at the thought that we had been left for dead by the staff. In all that time he recited me poems, his own as well as some written by others, rarely repeating a poem. I must have heard a total of sixty or seventy in all, many quite long and mostly his own, only a handful of which he would have recited more than once, and none of which I was able to commit to memory. Quite suddenly one morning I awoke earlier than usual to find the bed beside me empty. Sister Henrietta told me, later that morning, that McInnes had passed away overnight. No papers were found on him or among the few posessions he had left with his parents in Wisconsin. Every year at this time I wonder if what I witnessed was a virtuosic feat of memorised invention or a virtuosic feat of improvised invention - and I curse myself that I was unable to make any record of a genius that refused its own remembrance.