Archive for April 17th, 2012

Robert Bly’s long epilogue with Alzheimer’s Disease

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012
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Then

I met Robert Bly years before Iron John: A Book About Men made him internationally famous, long before he was taken up as the popular bard of the New Age movement.  Well, long before there was a New Age movement.  The Michigan Daily archives undoubtedly has the article I wrote in the huge, yellowed volumes in its dusty library – if the library or the volumes or the dust are still there.

Bly was into “the Great Mothers” then.  When I interviewed the Minnesota poet at the Ann Arbor home where he was staying, he playfully waved some of the masks he had collected and let out mock shrieks.  He had co-founded American Writers Against the Vietnam War some years before and was a prominent antiwar hero.  By then, however, he was caught up with American involvement in Central and South America – a phase that seems to be largely overlooked in the online biographies of him.  It was a fun interview, though, and the reading that he gave beforehand on campus was one of the most exuberant and confrontational I’ve  ever witnessed.

If we were in Central (or was it South?) America, he told us, we wouldn’t be letting him read from the podium as passive spectators.  We would be pushing him aside to read our own poems.  He challenged the students more during a Q&A period.  The takeaway quote I remember:  “It is better to pick one red pepper from a street market in Chile than to watch an hour-long documentary about the country.”  The favoring of experience over knowledge … evidently, I took that message to heart over the subsequent years.

So I was sorry to hear, via David Sanders“Poetry News” in Prairie Schooner that the poet has Alzheimer’s.  His daughter, Mary Bly, told Minnesota Public Radio:

You know he’s very happy. So… not very happy but he’s happy. So I’m very grateful that he’s not experienced the personality changes that sometimes accompany that sort of loss. But it’s sad, it’s very very hard for someone whose life is made up of looking at a tree and turning it into a poem – so your whole life flows by you in words – to not be able to manipulate words is a terrible thing.

At Minnesota's "Poetry Out Loud" in 2009 (Photo: Creative Commons)

For a good part of my childhood my dad was working on short prose poetry. And he used to make us – the children had to do it along with him! Our dinners were often made up of impromptu poetry readings. So in a way this was my tribute year to him, too, because that’s the kind of writing he did when I was growing up. He worked very hard on very small sets of words.

…My stepmother was talking about watching a video of him – and he sparked with ideas all the time – and he hasn’t lost his sense of humor so he said “I like that guy!” And then he said “I wish I knew him.” So it was very hard for my stepmother in that moment. But he’s both recognizing what’s happening – his sense of humor is not gone at all – and acknowledging that life has different phases.

I met up with Bly again decades later at Stanford in 2008, but by then I was different and older, and he seemed curiously (perhaps deceptively) the same, although his hair was pure silver, and he seemed more a grandfatherly figure to the students.  He turned to the young poet wannabes and cackled conspiratorially, “You can’t tell this to your parents.”  Of course, he was a parent by then, and so was I, so the comment seemed oddly nostalgic.

I spoke to him privately, during a break in the class, and told him of our meeting decades ago.  For a moment our eyes met, and he seemed curiously vulnerable, aware of the mask he was wearing that had somehow grown to him, the name and fame he carried like a heavy backpack, and could no longer put down.