July 28, 2010
by William Stott
We'd been dropped off at Tedeschi's
to gather what Frank would call the simple stuff of life:
a bag of onions, a few potatoes, cheese, milk, bread;
there were the appointed rounds that afternoon, as usual;
and, I wanted an espresso.
the scuffed aisles like paupers scrounging for copper tokens, or
clumsy miners sifting unfamiliar sluices for nuggets; meanwhile,
the real brass scoured the town to satisfy other tastes,
they traced major and minor arteries alike to mother lodes of ore
in stores: T.J. Maxx, yard sales, antique malls, and road-side
bazaars yielded riches from remnants; relics buried
in consumer ruins emerged beneath the discerning eye of Alma
and Jessie and Lizzie and Marg
and Ellen, dealer in burnished antiquities;
We gathered the stuff whose husks are shucked;
they practiced the mysteries of gleaning.
Gross groceries in hand,
we stepped to the sidewalk's edge and sat on the curb, to talk
- as was our wont - with time for talking treasure hunting;
he'd mapped vast territories, yet, somehow
with Frank the terrain seemed always new;
through the glass of his remarkable memory,
we surveyed old texts and inspected poems for bright similes,
winnowed literary chaff in search of brand-name metaphors:
tales told by idiots, breath of autumn's being, players strutting
their hour on a stage; from within layered horizons of literature
Frank unearthed gems; imaginary gardens with real toads,
purple hosts, and
there on the curb
- me, bare-foot, cut-off jeans, and an old shirt;
Frank, shod as always, in khakis, buttoned up short sleeves -
we were a contradiction, laid bare on inscrutable pavement.
And did we contradict ourselves? very well then, we reckoned,
we contradict! Sitting alone
in a stifling summer's heat redolent of Charon's chariot,
we were large, we contained multitudes.
Frank was practiced in the art of turning rough-cut
contradictions to poetry; Boethius, Hemingway, and Honus Wager
all played in the same game; St. Augustine's grace-filled
guilt, Aquinas' divine substance, (Religious Studies Professor) Tom Clarke's repentant saint
. . . these were
Tinkers to Evers to Chance of faith turning
the double play of deity;
saints and clowns caught God's light and cast it back
in the light of stained glass;
Frank caught, too, when Sister Catharine pitched at recess;
and he threw curves, as every family member knew, real odd
balls: Horatio! listen up friend: there
is more philosophy in Flea and Elephant jokes than dreamt of in
complacent Catholic orthodoxy.
Frank was never very far from metaphor.
That afternoon, we were sitters-on-curbs inhabiting
in-between spaces, denizens of the cracked-sidewalk
world where faith & reason meet; here too, he insisted, signs
and wonders flowered; "look" he'd say, "see
that dandelion and crabgrass splitting the walkway casement;
they are angels, casting aside the stone over Lazarus's tomb!"
Indeed; I could not help but add, "yes,
the force that through the green fuse drives the floral jack hammer."
And so it ran . . .
In essays, poems, and letters, this man talked
his walk, carded a life home spun;
he delivered sermons in pancakes, told scarecrow parables,
proclaimed the good news of risen
dough; chanted the scent of burning leaves in autumn,
the cracked-sidewalk sanctity of schoolyards;
that afternoon, on the curb,
between the jeweler's boutique of certainty
and the tanning salon of existential doubt,
we strained credulity, soaked in sweat;
and there, in the parking lot's sweet stink of tar,
I witnessed teaching as a way of being, an in-born
passion to keep a ship's lantern in view,
no matter the weather.
can only go so far, when the passion for caffeine calls;
between the jeweler's boutique and the tanning salon
it was no Babylon; no, but Spoleto loomed
like a stained-glass shrine to decadence;
Frank, however, had never been there
- to that kind of decadence, I mean; he was of the tribe
of tea drinkers; so he shrugged when I swept aside
the gritty sublime and barked the ridiculous
real, "where, in this God-forsaken town, can a man get an espresso?"
Propped on his hands, leaning back, he absently replied,
"what did Elizabeth say; isn't it there?" gesturing with his head;
I gazed at the restaurant's entrance;
but there, beside the door a sign announced,
"shirts and shoes required."
I paused and thought, what do I have to lose?
"Frank," I said, "let me borrow your shoes."
You would have thought Puck himself sat on my head,
or that Buster Keaton turned an antic summersault, such
was the look of wonder on Frank's face;
a laugh shot by with a whip's clean crack
and cleared the shimmering lot's hot black-
top; oh, the laugh; a boomerang's blade tracing the arc
of delight; froth on a Spring brook; a flag unfurled; a calliope's tune;
I heard a joyful voice so wrought
as to fill with mirth a parking lot
and he smiled like a child with a big, red balloon.
I walked past metaphor that summer's afternoon;
traveled a coffee-scented stanza in another man's shoes;
shared briefly in the jointed, measured step
of a poet's mind; felt, not merely heard,
something of the rhythm of his words;
I put on the shoes of a man for whom
verse is what the spirit wears;
garments, top hats, socks and shoes;
for whom words,
wrought with the care of a fine violin maker,
are instruments that let the music of the heart
into the room - and, for me that afternoon - the parking lot.
I didn't give the matter a second thought
at the time; it was just another turn in the path
of our many conversations; an image of Frank's gift,
a rare spontaneity, openness, good humor and grace
that he so often shared in unexpected places;
but more, it stands a living image of true teaching:
Frank was a teacher, an avid learner willing be surprised,
inspired even, by his students; with delight I saw appreciation
sparkle in his bright, clear eyes.
I returned the shoes, of course, but I've kept the walks;
held close to my heart our many talks; held onto Frank's shoes;
a sign of his persistence and perseverance
wrought in leather;
not cathedrals, but rather red-brick-parish-church shoes;
the shoes of a utility saint -
one who could bunt, steal a base, get you to the seventh;
that afternoon, Frank got us through the tenth and eleventh.
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