I have been indulging myself lately, writing a day book for this year of 2018. Writing something each day, ranging from what is happening now to dwellings on various past events/feelings/friends. Today I was writing about my in-built aversion to father-figures. I never had one and don’t think I ever wanted one. But that made me wonder about teachers I have admired and loved over the years, people who taught me many things. My sense was that I adopted my ways of being in the world more from friends than from teachers. I learned from my teachers, but was never inclined to imitate them. That kind of stealing I saved for my friends. Maybe because I felt some kind of barrier—one of age or of non- intimacy—that kept teachers from being fully real to me.
But these thoughts of teachers sent me to Google. And Roland Flint has a fairly significant web presence. Here’s the best site, complete with some poems and a fairly full biography.
I only know so much about Roland because he wore his heart on his sleeve in his poetry. We never talked of these things—although I was a student in his Faulkner seminar (the only class I ever took with him) that horrible fall when his six year old son was killed by a car. It was about four weeks into the semester; he was then gone for another month at least, with various guest teachers carrying on for him. Before he came back to teach, he was at a Georgetown football game in the rain. There was a crowd of about 50 people (at most) watching in the downpour. I was there because I was covering the game for the student newspaper. Roland had a flask and was pretty drunk, and we stood together (it was too wet to sit down) for some time (was it ten minutes, twenty, thirty? It seemed an eternity in its awkwardness). I don’t think I drank from the flask, although he offered it to me. But, perhaps, I took one swallow out of politeness. Whiskey has never been my thing. I may have said fifteen words the whole time, and was fixated on whether I should express my sorrow about his son’s death. I couldn’t find the courage to mention the death—and felt both an idiot for not doing so and certain that was the right course as he told related anecdotes of his time in graduate school in Minnesota. Tales of poets: Alan Tate and John Berryman.
Some years later, when his collection Stubborn, was published, I wrote to him to tell him of that day. Why? Because the stubbornness that his poems are built around is the relentless grief for that lost life—a grief that still haunted his every day some twenty years on. I thought he would welcome another window into that horrible time that he clearly dwelt on much of the time in his thoughts and imagination. I got back a short letter, one almost cold in its brevity, and its main point was that I must have mis-remembered because he would never have taken alcohol in the presence of a student and certainly wouldn’t have offered alcohol to one. An odd memory lapse about the looser atmosphere of the early 70s, because I also remember distinctly the bottles of Almaden wine lined up on the table at the end of semester class party he sponsored for that Faulkner seminar.
My college girlfriend took Roland’s poetry writing classes and I went to several of the poetry readings that he sponsored—most memorably the one with James Wright. Because of Roland, I memorized a number of classic English poems that second year in college, bits of which I still retain. Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur,” Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium,” most ambitiously Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.” And I went to see him on trips back to DC over the years, certainly in 1979, just before taking up my first academic job at the University of Michigan, when after that I do not know, but 1979 was not the last time I saw him.
Did I see him after that exchange of letters (which would have been in 1992 or 1993)? I don’t know. But I think not. Certainly we never talked about it if we did meet.
I read recently an essay by Richard Ellmann in which he says every life has a turning point. I suspect a biographer has to believe that, has to believe that a life has (assumes) a definite shape. How else could you write a coherent biography? I can’t identify a turning point in my life—or can identify at least ten of them. And I am proud to think my life too various, its incidents and relationships too many, to be reduced to some single plot line. But a catastrophe like the death of a child would, it seems to me, puts its stamp on everything, blot out so much else.
Here’s one of Roland’s poems about that turning point in his life—and the way it remained with him.
WHAT I HAVE TRIED TO SAY TO YOU
That there are ways to love the life you haven’t had,
ways to forgive the one you have.
That while your brother wasn’t killed
to test anyone, his death is,
somehow, allowed by the mystery
requiring our lives to have this
permanent pull at the middle.
Our lives are what they have been: unrevisable,
changed only in our responses,
if we are still ready, somehow,
for the next day, the next
person, poem, chance, even prepared,
however unready, for the next death.
Can we permanently grieve the boy
without hating what has become of him?
What has become of him?
He has returned to mystery,
the same one that is our life,
mine and yours this morning,
the continuing shapes we never see
up there, this afternoon, tomorrow:
so he is already, ahead of time,
in everything we do. I feel it, often,
that I am living my life in part for him,
not permanently dead in us, but telling
how we’d rather he had lived than not.
Remember our game of listening in the park
to hear the woods fill up with sounds,
birds, mostly, from farther and farther away
the longer we listened. He seems now
especially to have listened,
raptly, eyes closed, as if to singing,
as if he were entering the song,
and like the way he usually walked
far ahead of us or far behind –
already gone to his own music.
When I think how long it is
since he has entered all silence,
it takes me by the heart to think
those sounds like light have stayed
in whatever we are left to be.
That songs we heard those days
are from the place he’s gone away to,
a singing in the mysteries connecting us,
if we can stop and be quiet and listen.
(Easy, LSU Press, 1999)