Saturday, February 18, 2012

Nudity Explains the Darkness

Paul Swenson reading at Ken Sanders Rare Books
He loved women, Bel Cluff told me as we left the memorial service for Paul Swenson.

You have a wonderful family, I told Fae Ellsworth, a radiant woman—one of Paul's numerous sisters, I presumed— who had read her funny and intimate poem "How to Be Paul Swenson"early in the service.

I'm not Paul's sister, she said. I've been his lover for the past decade.

Barbara Bernstein, also not Paul's sister, read a eulogy that began with a statement about how since Paul's death she had had a single focused repeated set of thoughts: about the plan of salvation.

No, not that plan of salvation, she said. 

The Mormon Bishop would, somewhat awkwardly but with blessed concision, after remarking he had never witnessed an event like this one, lay out that plan at the end of the service.

A line from one of Paul's poems remarks on the Bishop's remark, something like this: "I baptized her and washed away all her sins—plot line thins at this point." 

I mean Paul's plan of salvation, Bernstein continued. Every time he saw you he would do or say something to make your life better.

Eulogies abounded, as did poems by Paul and this one by his  sister May (of Beat Generation fame), read by their sister Beth Swenson Hall:

“Feel me to do right,” our father said on his deathbed.
We did not quite know—in fact, not at all—what he meant.
His last whisper was spent as through a slot in a wall.
He left us a key, but how did it fit? 

. . .
“Lie down with me, and hold me, tight. Touch me. Be
with me. Feel with me. Feel me to do right.”

At once familial and sexy, May's poem could have been written by Paul. They both loved women.

Paul, weeks before his death, wrote "Nudity Explains the Darkness" (thank you Bel for the signed copy) in which, in the context of dipping chocolates and dipping bodies in the dark in a hot tub, Paul remembers the AP reporter denied entrance to a Priesthood meeting in the Mormon Tabernacle because she was a woman wearing pants. She returned, Paul writes: "in low-cut dress, / and there, associated press of male / attention pondered golden crucifix / that burned between her breasts."

Paul even loved his phlebotomist (December 2011):

"My phlebotomist / finds my tiny vein / first prick. Even though / I'm a 'hard stick,' / as she calls it (as if I didn't know). . . . Not her looks that haunt me, / but that she wants / my fluid, and reads my EKG."

Doesn't surprise me at all that they want his fluid and to read his heart.

Nor does it surprise me that Paul's absence is powerful as the day wears on.

It does surprise me how little grief was in the air at the service. Raw grief, I mean. There were plenty of deep feelings, well expressed.

But where were the sobs, the tears, the distraught faces? Did we celebrate too well?


Loz said...

I've really been thinking about this recently. About, my fears for a life not fulfilled. A legacy and the words I leave behind as a writer and how those will be embraced or interpreted.
I loved these two lines, "It does surprise me how little grief was in the air at the service. Raw grief, I mean. There were plenty of deep feelings, well expressed.

But where were the sobs, the tears, the distraught faces? Did we celebrate too well?"

When the time comes, I want the same deep feelings well expressed. I want the occasion to be "Celebrated too well."
Thanks for the post.

Scott Abbott said...

you touch on something i didn't write about but felt deeply during the service: what if, when i die, no one really cares? and what if, when i die, there's no one to put together a service like this? and what if, when i die, my work is ignored?

i have children and grandchildren and a partner. they'll do something because they're family. that's enough, i guess. and it's not enough.

michael morrow said...

I love the contrasting textures, messages and personalities existing between these last two posts...Seeing Paul's sweet face perched between slimy organized religious bigotry and nudity explains the darkness is wonderfully appropriate...

eloquent and smooth (I hear his soft passion..tones colorful and descriptive articulating messages sometimes prickly, sometimes melodious) spilling out his easy smile... his work reassures me that art is society's like Paul's...even society's adhesive.....allowing me to look past...maybe even resolve personal animosity towards churchy....