Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Death of a Poet

I got word last week that Dan Pendergrass, a friend I'd served with in the Peace Corps, had died. He'd been teaching at the American University in Dubai, and missed classes two weeks ago. His coworkers went to his apartment, and found him. There were no signs of drugs, foul play, suicide - & no explanation. Just, he went to bed, and died.

I've been out of touch with our group for awhile, but we've been slowly getting back in touch. You form these friendships in intense situations that seem like they will last forever, and you promise yourselves that you will always stay in touch ... but when you move back to normal life you find yourselves slowly drifting apart. There are times of my life that have faded and hazy. I see people and can only dimly recall their names. There are other times that remain vivid, the colors remain sharp, and the friendships deep. When you do reconnect and cross paths again it feels as if time hasn't passed, as if your lost friends had been with you all along.

But this is a bittersweet reunion, and it's death not life that is bringing us together. And time has passed, of course. The last I had heard of Dan - and this was years ago, almost a lifetime ago - he wasn't readjusting to life in the States, and had headed overseas again. Fine. A lot of us never really re-adjusted to mainland life. He went to Korea, I think. That's the last I knew.

AU Dubai posted a memorial for him, and realized how much I had missed - that he had continued teaching, that he had continued writing, that he had taught in Istanbul and dreamt of Cambodia, that he had been writing poetry in secret & that fear had kept him from submitting them for publication ... and that when he finally did he was published seventeen times in one year, and that Arabesque Press published his first collection, 23 Istanbul Karabitsi, this past year ...

There's always so much we don't know. Here's a few things that I've found in the past couple days:

from Along the Mekong
I was greeted and signed in – the extent of his English – by a young Laotian fellow who would see to my needs, delicious coffee Lao and those wonderful Laotian breakfasts based around fried eggs with French-style baguettes, plus directions to this or that place, and finally a quick ride out of town, in a careful and efficient manner for the next few days. He would have been ‘the boy’ of old, as in the boy who would have impertinently suggested to the French officers that the jungle might not be the best place to put the fort. The boy Graham Greene would have sent out for another pipe at a dubious time, or that Somerset Maugham, in his later period, would have had lying around in a kimono just for local color. The boy who would have handed the Americans in mirrored sunglasses a neatly rolled-up flag and wished them a pleasant helicopter flight out from the place where officially they had never been. A timeless and unflinching witness to the civilizing influence of the Western world. He was a nice kid, and smiled a lot, although I never caught his name.

Luang Pabang was fairly busy with visitors for the rainy season, and at the time it seemed that it could only get bigger. Since then, Hmong guerillas or bandits – remnants of the war to stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia – have become more active in the area of Vang Vieng, a nearby town which has grown along with the tourist boom; buses have been machine gunned, with some actual Western People comprising a noticeable minority among the victims.

But why is this happening? The Hmong have considered themselves perhaps rightly an oppressed minority, like many people who live high up, for eternities; is this not merely a continuation of a centuries-old situation seen in many other places? ...

On the other hand, to follow the line of thought common in some American political circles these days, one senses the hand of religious extremists in all this. The menacing specter of weapons of mass destruction, of cleverly disguised Mosque-littered spheres of influence, which need to be absolutely, finally, conclusively and beyond all question bombed into potential Wal-Mart parking lots. Of grim-turbaned death squads looking for flirtatious blond women to slap around, of people in this area who the powers that be have been meaning to decapitate for a very long time now. But have the right people for the job been notified? Have the deadly mechanisms been self-righteously and irrevocably set in motion?
People who like things spelled out clearly/
Wake up standing in dark rooms late at night,/
Rummage through the back of old bureau drawers,/
Looking for something which is not quite there,/

They expect semi-regular mail from time-lost acquaintances,/
Think they will hear answers in a foreign language,/
Play chess in their minds, move people like pieces,/
Concoct noble roles in fluid dramas, see them through to a logical end,/

Which may or may not happen, but tidy in the mind/
Bypasses the generous effects of discovery/
Found less than neatly piled on what remains/
Even in the leavings of our losses/
And finally, Lost Wig Talk
Light night on the mountain:
Soft evening, colors, yellow and green,
Playing down through the windows,
Through us—
To the dog in the back seat
Leans his head out the window, —
At the wind, —
Blowing through your hair this night
Even not only your hair, some
Just covering that side you shaved —

‘Like everyone now’

My isn’t the night slow like its own fog tonight:

Us flying off the mountain in a fast car
When the sun is going
And so do we:
The windows left open
And the dog in the back seat
Leans his head out the window, —
At the wind, —
Blowing through your hair,
Your yellow and green hair.

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