ocvictor: (Just me)
Jack McCarthy died today.

It's one of those sentences that doesn't quite make sense, as though so few words could carry the weight of what's missing from the world that was here just yesterday. It wasn't unexpected, of course. He's been in hospice for months. Still, to quote Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "It's always sudden."

I met Jack somewhere around 1994. I was running a poetry reading in Huntington Beach, Calif., and he had written to me about doing a reading while he was out visiting. This was before the Web took off in full force, so I really didn't have much to go on. Jack wasn't particularly well-known yet outside of New England. He sent me a cassette tape and a small stack of poems. The poems were riffs off of English addresses -- witty and kind of lovely, but not really the sort of thing we did at the Java Garden. The cassette was the slam stuff he would later become more well-known for, which would have sold the deal. The problem: My boom box had recently begun eating tapes, so I didn't risk playing it right away, so I had an image in my head of Jack as an aging, seemingly good-natured academic. But I liked the English address poems well enough, so I hedged my bets and booked him in a co-feature with D. Knowledge, whom was (at the time) a surer gamble. I needn't have worried. Jack was (of course) an instant hit, his shaggy dog stories with their sucker-punch endings absolutely slaying the audience. Moreover, I learned later that he and D. became pen pals for a spell. Jack was like that. You could put him in front of any room, and the audience would love him, and he'd make friends in the process.

Having realized just how wrong I'd been, I never again hesitated to put him on a stage. And when I wasn't running shows, I followed him like the Grateful Dead. Conveniently, I lived in SoCal when he visited there often, and later, I moved to Worcester while he was still living near Boston. After he moved to Washington, I was afraid I'd see him less frequently, but he returned often, and began teaching performance workshops at New England College in Henniker, N.H. -- a program Lea and I both have ties to, and which we visited frequently.

It was after his first reading at NEC -- to a packed house, I might add -- that I had one of my favorite conversations about Jack and his work, with poet and NEC professor Carol Frost. Carol is always an outspoken sort, and when we encountered him in the hall afterward, she was clearly wrestling with Jack's poetry.

I confided that Jack does a lot of things in his writing that normally drive me crazy, but when he does them, they all work. That's what makes him such an amazing artist. This answer seemed to satisfy Carol, but it also crystallized a lot for me, too. A lot of people treat poetry like it's a math problem, an equation to be solved. Jack put the lie to that in poem after poem. The "rules," such as they are, are there to help the writer coax nuance, meaning and emotion out of the poem. They're not an end unto themselves. And Jack could use any of the tools in the poet's toolbox with skill and precision -- his smaller lyrics, the ones that rarely made it to slams, are gorgeous -- but he always knew he didn't have to use any artifice if he didn't need to. Jack could just craft a story, and it would inevitably be a poem, would always be something a bit more than a jumble of sentences and sentiment. Because Jack was a real artist, and any arbitrary rules only applied when he found them convenient.

The last time I saw Jack was a little more than a year ago, in Los Angeles, when he was reading at Drums Inside Your Chest. In a show chock-full of bright talent, Jack shined the absolute brightest, dazzling the crowd which was largely unfamiliar with him. I remembered that feeling, what it was like to discover his work for the first time. I envied them.

Jack McCarthy is gone now, and although he gave the Reaper a good run for his money, it still doesn't seem possible. It doesn't seem yet as though I can divine the shape of the absence in his wake. He was one of the best people I ever knew, and I'm not entirely comfortable yet conceiving of a world without him in it.

"Shhh. It's all right.
Sleep will come,
when you're not looking.
Morning will come, and breakfast,
and things that should be easy
will be easy once more.
It's the Walk of Life.
You've walked it before
and you will walk it again.
Shhh now beloved."

-- from "The Walk of Life," Jack McCarthy
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Technically, I'm on vacation right now. Not doing much with my vacation -- have a gig in upstate New York next week, might visit friends here and there -- but right now, it just feels like I'm coming to the end of a fairly brutal weekend, except that I don't have to go to work Monday morning. Which is something.

Mostly, this weekend, I'm thinking a lot about absent friends, and about missed opportunities. Almost bizarrely, I've been thinking about the novelist Victor Villaseñor, who used to come into Upchurch-Brown Booksellers in Laguna Beach when I worked there a lifetime ago. One time, he invited me to go fire-walking with him. He was probably joking, but I begged off anyhow, but really, how stupid was I not to leap at the opportunity to go do something that strange and cool with a writer that awesome. Was I just being chicken-shit? Damned if I know. It was all a long time ago.

I've also been thinking a lot about my friend Elmo, and something he once said to me (he was quoting another friend, as I recall. Brian Q.? Mike S.? The memory is hazy.) He said, "Buy a good suit, because from here on out, it's only weddings and funerals."

We were in our 20s when he said that. We're in our 40s now, and there's been a lot more to both our lives than weddings and funerals.I've still never walked on fire, but there have been all sorts of weird and wonderful things, lots of other interesting and amazing people. It's been a lot of things, but it's rarely been boring. Sometime I choose to be boring, because I need to decelerate, but on the whole, it's been a good life, and there's ostensibly still some time on the clock. Ostensibly.

Because there have been a lot of weddings and funerals. Just recently, I was overjoyed to hear news of three weddings, all friends whom I seldom see anymore, but am always glad to encounter when our paths cross. I'm always overjoyed when people I love are happy, and really, I'm a sucker for a wedding. I've seen a lot of marriages blow up, of course, same as everybody else. But I always like that one, shining moment when love triumphs over everything else; how for that one moment, anything is possible.  I'm sentimental that way.

But this weekend began Friday night in New Hampshire, with me reading a poem at a funeral for a friend, Cindy DeRego. Cindy, the wife of my old friend Jeff DeRego, had died recently after a long struggle with cancer. She was one of the most solid, unambiguously good people I had ever known -- genuine, friendly, caring. She left behind Jeff and their two amazingly smart kids, Meg and Ian. I've lost a lot of people over the years, and if I'm totally honest, a lot of them had lived lives that had clearly shaved some time off the ends. Cindy wasn't one of those. I had fully expected she would recover. It seemed like she had that kind of story. It seemed like she was one of the people who should be here, and I was utterly gobsmacked to discover that she wouldn't be.

Jeff asked me to read my poem, An American Love Song, at the service, and I'll admit, that concerned me a bit, too, because that's a poem about men not being able to survive after their love had passed on. (I wrote it after Johnny Cash died.) Seeing Jeff at the funeral reassured me, a bit. He was hurting, obviously, but there's still a lot of strength in him. I admire him immensely. I always have. But here, I was certain he was stronger than I would be in if I were in his shoes. I don't ever want to be in his shoes.

And still, there was love in that room. The immense, honest, sometimes bawling sort of love that loss leaves in its wake. When I left New Hampshire, I felt like I had said goodbye. I don't always feel that at funerals. I don't like to say "goodbye" to people, although -- as I said -- it's happened rather a lot.

A short while ago, there was an interview on the Web with my dear friend, Jack McCarthy.

Listen to internet radio with SpokenHeard on Blog Talk Radio

I've known Jack for nearly 20 years, and hearing him talk so calmly and bravely about what are, undoubtedly, his last months was nearly heartbreaking. I want to tell him how much his friendship has meant over the years, how much I admire him as a poet and as a man. I start to type the words, but they all vanish as soon as my fingers touch the keyboard. I'm not ready to live in a world without him, yet, even though I see him seldom these days. That doesn't mean his place in my heart is at all diminished. And still I'm silent. The words overwhelm my voice.

I am surrounded right now by love and loss, weddings and funerals, and I can't help but feel like I'm also far away somewhere, walking on fire. This is all so impossible, this loving until your heart near-bursts. Sometimes, it's unbearable. But it's also what it means to be alive.


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Victor David Infante

April 2017

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