Memorial reading for Morton Marcus on Nov. 6: a literary “bright spot” on West Coast

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At Vasili's Greek Restaurant, 2009 (Photo: Valerie Marcus Ramshur)

“If you were going to make a literary map of America, there would be a bright spot on the map at Santa Cruz,” said Robert Hass, who will be the keynote speaker at the first annual memorial for poet Morton Marcus tomorrow night at 7.30 p.m., at the Cabrillo College Music Recital Hall, 6500 Soquel Drive in Aptos.  (Gary Young, Stephen Kessler, Joe Stroud will also read.  Tickets are gone — arrive at 6.30 for no-shows and returns.)

Perhaps Mort is a bright spot on the bright spot.

“He was larger than life,” said Santa Cruz poet Stroud, who knew Marcus for more than 40 years. “Mort loved nothing more than to have a meal and to have a conversation. I think of him as a conductor almost, eating and drinking and driving the conversation this way and that. It was an unforgettable experience.”

I met Morton Marcus via the world wide web — and our relationship, alas, remained an epistolary one.  Poet Jane Hirshfield brought my attention to his remarkable memoir of Czesław Miłosz in his autobiographical Striking Through The Masks, and I approached him about contributing to a book I had in the back of my mind.  (The book, An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, will be out soon — really it will.)  He wrote a note back in September 2006, with some evocative thoughts about Prague:

I’m back now. It was my second trip. This time I was there to teach a poetry composition class in the Prague Summer Program. It really is an incredible city, but a far as I’m concerned not for the reason other people are so enchanted by it. The Renaissance and baroque buildings are masks that cover centuries of suffering which are marked by the extraordinary number of memorials that dot the city. If one looks, one sees a microcosm of all cities in Prague, and one experiences the timeless misery and joy of being alive. Then going to Prague becomes a pilgrimage to pay homage to all our ancestors.

I’m not a professor, by the way. I’ve taught classes at UC, but mainly I taught Literature and Film for thirty-two years down the road at Cabrillo College.

Thanks for your interest, and I hope we’ll meet one day.

Jane Hirshfield

We didn’t.  But in a book that was filled with a not-always-harmonious assortment of contributors, he was one of the most easygoing of the bunch.   Good natured.  Not a prima donna.  It was appreciated.  As we were finishing up in June 2009,  he wrote to me the terrible news:  “I’m glad the book is coming out. When will that be? Since last year, my life has drastically changed: I’ve been diagnosed with terminal cancer. So before I go I have to get as many facts down on paper about new work coming out as quickly as I can.”

He sent me a brief bio for the book, and ended with the comment:  “I’m still standing.  Regards to all.”

I’m told he sank into pain, but never into less than good spirits.  I asked him about second opinions:  “It’s all through my bloodstream with growing tumors in my lungs and liver verified again and again. Second, third and fourth opinions, too. No problem; I’ve had a great life,” he wrote with daunting equanimity.  I offered at last to visit — but thought he might be less interested in meeting pen pals than gathering himself into himself.  I guessed right.  His last note to me said:  “Thanks so much for your thoughts, Cynthia, and the offer of a visit, but as you’ve guessed I’m more interested in solitude.”

Jane wrote to me to tell me he had died on October 28 last year.  His final words were, “I’m ready.”

Two poems from his last collection, The Dark Figure in the Doorway: Last Poems

ALL WE CAN DO

All we can do on this earth is step into the future
with a sense of the many people behind us,
the living and the dead, as if we carried our bodies
like amphorae filled with sunbeams into each new day,
continually reaching inside ourselves
to scatter golden butterflies over the land before us,
or to fling them against the night, not like tears, but like stars
that will guide those who follow across the darkness.

WHAT IS ALIVE IN US

What is alive in us, what vibrates
in our animal skins, is a harp string
that is never still, a harp string
tuned to the drone of silence.
It is the single thread, the radiant filament,
that sews us to our coat of darkness,
the umbilical that holds us
to the planet each of us is
yet allows us to wander among the stars —
the guy rope that secures us
to ourselves, yet lets us venture
into the darkness all the way
to the planet of someone else.

One can see why Miłosz liked him.


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