“A Pearl Harbor of the mind”


Flanked by poets Helen Pinkerton (left) and Turner Cassity (right) at a 2008 reading

On the 26th, it will have been a year since poet Turner Cassity died — and he never did, as he had promised, take me for a night on the town (let alone to the San Francisco opera) during one of his frequent swings through the Bay Area.

It’s too bad.  I have a feeling it would have been a night to be remembered.  As friend and fellow poet Suzanne Doyle writes, “Frankly, he was the best date I ever had.”  She reminisces on the Ablemuse site here.  An excerpt:

Whenever we planned a night on the town, Turner would tempt me with, “Come on, Suzanne, let’s be wicked together.” A good part of being “wicked” included gin and the effervescent tonic of gossip.

On the particular night in question she recalls (but only patchily) how the gay librarian from Georgia began the festivities with a “French 77”:

By the book, the French 77 consists of a shot of elderberry liqueur and lemon juice in a flute, with the flute then filled with champagne. But the way the bartender made this drink for Turner, whom he had surely served before, was to present him with what I remember as being a beaker of champagne and a shot of cognac. Turner sank the shot in the champers. I have a clear memory of the shot slowly rocking its way to the bottom, like the depth-charge it surely was. If I’d even tasted that drink, I’m sure the rest of the evening would be a complete blank. Turner had two.

Turner himself called the evening “a Pearl Harbor of the mind.”

I wrote about him two years ago here, but my small effort is easily dwarfed by the Ablemuse tribute Suzanne has organized.  “Laying It on the Line for Turner Cassity” is difficult to navigate, but has some real gems (and this video) among its 133 pages.  Among the notable rubies is this tribute from A.E. Stallings:

Lines For Turner Cassity

Librarian with military bearing,
You’ve left us poems critics call unsparing,

A wit not merely clever but hard-bitten.
Sometimes I hear you utter, “overwritten,”

And even at this distance, there’s no choice
But hear the word in that distinctive voice,

Not circumflexing drawl, dipthonged legato,
But southern, brisk particular staccato—

Inimitable voice—for never cruel—
Impatient only of the pompous fool

And vagueness that gesticulates at truth.
Clear and styptic as a dry vermouth,

You taught the courtesy of kindness meant
By shaming false and floral sentiment.

Death’s crude arithmetic only exacts
The estimate of flesh and bone for tax;

You it has taken—and yet misconstrued—
For it has left us your exactitude.

I didn’t meet Turner face-to-face till 2008, at the Terrace Room reading pictured above.  Despite his talk of wickedness, he seemed gentle and affable — his sociability masking a charming bashfulness.

On my desk, I have the two last Cassity volumes — Devils and Islands and The Destructive Element: New and Collected Poems.  But Suzanne promises that there’s more to come — he left caches of material left behind.  “A whole gigabyte,” Suzanne told me, in the parlance of our times.  “That’s a lot of text files.”


Comments are closed.