Share A Poem

An old painting from my archives. This is "Hermes."

An old painting from my archives. This is “Hermes.”

One day, out of the blue, Doug came out of his office, stood at the door to my office and asked me to follow him. Doug was a bull in a china shop, gruff on the best of days, and his request was more of a command than an invitation. He’d spent his early life in the military, did two tours in Vietnam, and a piece of him was still fighting that war; the rigor, structure and discipline he’d acquired as a soldier was still saving his life. I’d worked with him long enough to know that he was soft to the center. Doug was a big heart wrapped in pit bull clothes.

I followed him back to his office and he asked me to close the door, a sign that usually meant battle was to ensue. I closed the door and sat opposite his desk, curious that the lights were off. The dim room was illuminated by a single thin window partially obscured by a bookcase. He sat. He took a deep breath and looked around as if he was worried that others might be listening, and said, “I want to show you something.” He took another breath, slid open the bottom desk drawer, and pulled out a book so worn and deteriorated that it was barely recognizable as a book. I knew immediately what it was and caught me breath. “I want you to see this,” he said. I gently held the tattered brittle pages and read the first poem in the book and, as I read it, Doug recited it. Tears came to my eyes.

I’d heard the story of the book many times. Doug told the story when he was in pain, when one of his students was self-destructing or when he was once again standing at the edge of his own personal abyss, a place that was never far away. He told me the story each time he was trying to find a shred of humanity in his very dark world.

When Doug was on his way to his first tour in Vietnam, he was not yet 18 years old, he was angry and alcoholic, and for reasons he could never explain, he stopped in an airport bookshop and bought a book of The World’s 100 Greatest Poets. When telling the story, Doug would say, “I’d never read a poem. I hated poetry! I was nearly illiterate! But I bought that book and stuffed it in my bag.” He told me that the guys in his platoon teased him the first night he brought out the book of poetry and read it. Initially he read the poems aloud to bother his mates. They’d shout and throw stuff at him. Every night he read poems aloud. Soon, after the horrors of the day, after the fears of being killed or having killed, they asked him to read poems to them. They had favorites. They made requests. They talked about what the poems meant. They asked him to find a good poem to send to their loved ones at home. Over the year, Doug learned to recite by heart each one of those poems.

Doug told me that poetry saved his life. The book saved his humanity. That day in his office we spent nearly an hour reading poems to each other; each poem had a story, a memory. He told me that people don’t understand the reason for art, the necessity of poetry. “It’s not a luxury,” he roared, “it’s the goddamn center.” He carefully placed the book back in the drawer and pushed it closed. I thanked him for sharing it and he waved me off. The moment had passed; he closed the drawer on his sharing, too. It was too much.

That day was nearly twenty years ago.

Doug Durham

Doug Durham

Jim sent me news that Doug passed away this week. The last time I saw Doug he showed up at my apartment in Seattle just as he’d showed up at my office door: out of the blue. He sat in my living room for fifteen minutes, fidgeting, unable to sit still. “I just wanted to see you!” he trumpeted. “I wanted you to see that things are good with me!” He was deciding whether or not to open that metaphoric desk drawer. He had something to share or say but had not yet decided whether it was the right time. He had cancer even then but was on top of it.

“Well!” he announced, standing, “it was good to see you.” I asked him what he wasn’t saying and he gave me the “be careful” look. He wasn’t ready and I knew better than to push him. “Stay in touch.” I said, as he climbed into his big red truck. “You know better than that!” he smiled, waved, and drove away.

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5 Responses

  1. Great post…the gift Doug gave you is in your writing of his story. Your shared archival painting reminded me of your battle with the crows…Hermes…Crows…Doug…Poetry…this post is a keeper.

  2. What an homage to Doug. I’m so sorry to hear of his passing. What a loss to the world. This certainly has been a year of loss for you, hasn’t it? Having gone through a like year a long time ago I have spent much time thinking about the significance of these kinds of events when they are so concentrated into such a short period of time. It’s almost like the universe is trying to give us the clues to some great lesson but we continue to ignore it. So, to get our attention, a year of loss occurs. It’s like being slapped hard in the face in order to help us get perspective.

    I know you are leaving for Europe soon. I hope your workshops with Alan are a huge success and you make lots of contacts for future work there. If I remember correctly you are also spending a few days in my favorite city, Paris. I can’t wait to hear all about it. Forget the sightseeing. Just be on the streets and soak up the culture and the beauty. Walk a lot. Spend time in the park (Luxembourg Gardens is wonderful). Eat well. Drink well. Allow yourself to be transported to a level of beauty that doesn’t seem to exist outside of Paris.

    Be safe.



  3. Beautiful word painting of a friend and teacher. Yes to poetry.

  4. How did I come to know such a man, all those years and still learning of the depth, after his passing. He could be a little rough I suppose but, caring and always giving tinged with subtle encouragement, in retrospect, insight. Shared uncommon experiences, some tragedy some love, and for me, the beauty of seeing a lifetime of effort reflected in such written words and, those expressed by so many of his old students returning to pay respect and thanks, for the guidance he successfully gave to all these young men and Barry and Cassie and, his comrades. I miss him.

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