In early autumn of 2009, facing a recurrence of a rare cancer that my doctors had deemed inoperable, I had been in touch through Facebook with poet Jack Wiler, a friend who was in a dire predicament with his own health. When I described what my illness had become, he wrote, “What does no surgery mean? Of course you know I think this is very bad news and if it is I need to talk with you a bit.” So we planned a dinner for later on that autumn when I would next see my doctors in the U.S.
Jack didn’t live long enough for this dinner and conversation to occur, but died of complications from Hepatitis C and AIDS a few weeks after our Facebook exchange, and only a day after giving what was to be his final poetry reading.
Since then, I managed to have a risky surgery for my inoperable condition and am back in the black (admittedly an edgy black, bordering on grey, as I live from MRI to MRI hoping no cancer returns), but from time to time in late-night insomnia bouts or walking alone though central Moscow streets, my mind will drift to questions of an existential sort, and I find myself wondering about that conversation that we never got to have.
What did Jack want to say to me about hopeless situations?
In my head our conversation takes many forms: sometimes it is over beers, and sometimes over a lingering after-dinner coffee. This dialogue is a form of fiction, an unfinished screenplay with noir-ish aspects of a Manhattan engulfed in fog and rain, a score of smoky jazz, a basement restaurant that looks more like a 1920’s speakeasy in unhealthy alliance with an early 90’s Seattle grunge bar, and probably somebody wanted for murder is sitting a few tables away nursing a line of watered-down drinks and plotting his own disappearance. Meanwhile, Jack talks to me about the ever-present Angel of Death and what this angel’s shadow means in relation to living one’s workaday life.
But who knows really what Jack would have said? Oh, these movies in my head. He’d be rolling his eyes by now.
I can, however, get an inkling of the potential tone, the wisdom, the humor of this alas forever potential conversation by reading Jack’s posthumous collection of poems, Divina is Divina. This collection sings to the place within us that, in opposition to the hopelessness of our human situation, transcends mere endurance and soars.
In an earlier collection of poems, I Have No Clue (there are three collections total; would there were more!), Jack cuts to the chase of our existential hopelessness in “Thinning the Herd” where, after beginning with an opening image of a dead cow, he then moves on to a description of a friend’s mother keeping her infection a secret, until she dies alone in her living room and her daughter finds her “on the davenport curled up with One Life to Live on the TV / and her cigarette still burning in the ashtray the ash / almost an inch long…” He presents the stark reality of our condition in four short phrases:
That’s my secret.
That’s your secret.
There it is, with no adornment. The poems in Divina is Divina turn this secret, this reality, inside out. In “On Death and Dying,” the poem begins, “I am in a house with five people, all infected with HIV.” They all know that death is coming, but it’s still a surprise, even when you “[r]emember being so sick you saw angels at your bedside.” After the line break comes a surprising, dazzling line: “They never left.”
The presence of these angels is everywhere in Jack’s work. Angels of protection, angels of death. “Death is always there. / She takes your father, your friend, the man at the 7-Eleven,” he writes. “Sometimes you’re sad, sometimes you forget to pay attention.”
In “The Angel of Death,” Jack takes this exploration of angels further, writing:
I watch a lot of movies with angels in them.
I’m always amazed that they look like the angels I knew.
I understand the purpose of angels.
The purpose of angels is to help us deal with another life.
But we are still in this life. Later in the poem we are given the following advice:
Watch, listen, taste, smell, eat, breathe, sleep, rise, work.
These are our imperatives.
They keep our lives whole.
When it is over we can talk to the angels or devils.
[…] They’re hungry for conversation.
We are still here, but there is suffering and illness. In the poem “Surgical Options,” Jack gives us a picture of illness with no sugar-coating whatsoever:
I’ve been taking nasty medicine for six years.
I shit in my pants at work.
My dick doesn’t work right when I want it to.
People look at me like I’m some sad sack
cancer patient and now I have to deal with dying right away […]
It turns out the spleen is attached to your heart.
It turns out that the surgeon might,
pierce your heart
and the whatever, lower ventricle or aorta or something
will fill your abdominal cavity with blood and
you could die.
This poetic exploration of the fears arising from the potential dangers of surgery are in contrast to the poem which ends the official collection, “The Hardest Poem a Man Can Write” where we see the dark humor of our situation:
Here lies Jack
Dumb as a stick
and flat on his back.
Couldn’t keep his dick in his pants.
Now there are worms in his mouth.
I’ll leave the surprise ending of this mock gravestone inscription for the reader to enjoy.
In the meantime, I’m dying. That’s my secret. You’re dying. That’s your secret. But what do we do while we are dying, in all the years that make up one’s life? In that last exchange of Facebook messages, in answer to my fears about my illness and concern about his, Jack wrote, “Life is short and beautiful and you can’t worry about anything except trying to be in the here and now and take pleasure in God’s world.”
Love and work are things to do until you die, and Jack’s poems go deeply into both. While Jack taught poetry in the New Jersey public schools and wrote and studied poetry deeply, he also held a job for years that has become legend in certain poetic circles: working for Acme Exterminating in New York. Many of his poems in all three collections concern the ethical nature of this work of killing bugs and vermin. In the poem “It’s Just a Job” in I Have No Clue, Jack raises this ethical question when he says:
I found out recently I’d been looking
at things from a very Western
point of view.
I found out that in Tibet
rats are not what I thought them to be.
In Tibet rats aren’t just fat, hairy, plague ridden beasts.
In Tibet rats have some status.
In Tibet rats are messengers for the gods.
Which brings me to my problem.
Each day I send out people to kill
the messengers of the gods.
In Divina is Divina, the poem “We Monsters” takes the question further about the lives of humans, rats and insects:
You’re the only living thing that should be happy here?
Flies haven’t the right to light on your cast off soda?
Fungus gnats shouldn’t graze happy on your drain?
He paints an image of “All of us huddled in this mess. / Hunting for food. / Sipping at tiny draughts. / Taking brief respites.” A parable to consider.
In two desperate phone calls, I begged Jack’s professional advice. Once when my Moscow apartment was overrun with mice, and once when my mother had “water bugs” slithering up through the drains and invading her kitchen and bath after a particularly strong California rain. “Resa, there is no such thing as a ‘water bug,'” he told me. “Water bugs are roaches. They are a form of roaches that like to live in drains and pipes, in dark, wet places. But if it makes her feel better, let your mother keep calling them water bugs. These bugs don’t want to be in her house. They like the dark wet places underground. They just got lost. Putting down poison to kill them won’t help. It was probably too much rain that made them lose their way. Tell her to keep all her drains closed for a while and that should solve the problem.” And it did.
My mice were another issue altogether. “OK, Resa, you are a Buddhist and that I can respect,” he began, “and so yeah you want to remove the mice, but not hurt them, and so bring them at least a mile away and they won’t be able to scent their way back. But you know, these are house mice, not field mice. Generations of living in houses. Houses are all they know. If you let them live in your house you will be over run—do you understand how in a mere two months a few generations of mice can be born? You will be drowning in mice. If you catch them, though, in your kindly traps and relocate them a mile away, where will you take them? To a park in the Russian winter? How will they survive outside in the snow? To someone else’s house so that the mice can become another person’s problem? I hope you know this is an ethical dilemma.”
All of us are, indeed, huddled and taking brief respites, but then there are the moments that soar. Even in mourning the death of a friend, there is transcendence and revelation. In the title poem “Divina is Divina,” Jack and his beloved, Johanna, mourn the death of their friend Divina:
My beloved had a friend.
My beloved is Johanna.
Her friend is Divina.
Of course, my beloved’s real name is Marko
and her friend’s real name is Hector.
Divina dies in a hospital “and no one knew her name […] She was Hector Gomez […] She lay quiet and still and faded into the world. / No one in the hospital knew Divina.” This dying alone, unknown, causes Jack’s narrator to rail against the injustice of it all:
You could say, and you should,
what the fuck is this?
You could be angry, and you should.
What kind of world tosses humans in the trash?
And then there is the leap that is special in Jack’s work, a form of dialectical thinking where he presents the thesis and the antithesis, but instead of following with the mere synthesis that one would expect, there is transcendence—sheer revelation. Jack poses this question in the poem and then turns his own question on its head:
It would be like asking why flowers wilt in the hot sun.
It would be like asking why Hector is Divina.
Hector is Divina because the flowers bloom!
Hector is Divina because the sun rises!
[…] Hector is Divina because we need to hear
someone outside our door crying our names.
Jack, in these poems, in this final posthumous collection, is that person crying out our names.
In my own reading of the poems in Divina is Divina, while imagining the conversation that Jack and I will never have, I also remember a conversation that really took place. It was in Franconia, New Hampshire, where the poet Robert Frost had lived some summers and worked on poems. We were both offering workshops at a poetry conference there, mine on haiku and Jack’s on performing poetry.
That evening we had planned to meet at a nearby inn for drinks at the bar, but the bar was closed. Prepared for such an eventuality, Jack had brought plastic cups and bottles of cheap red wine. We sat on the porch and talked for hours. Gossip. Poetry. Medicines we counted on working, despite our innate understanding that in the end nothing could possibly work. We were sitting on comfortable rocking chairs facing the White Mountains that Robert Frost had loved. We could see only a hint of an outline of these mountains in the dark as our voices competed with crickets and treefrogs, the sky lit with stars.
I can hear Jack’s voice now, the same voice you hear in Divina is Divina and in all of his poems, and in the writings on his blog where he recreated aspects of his New Jersey childhood, and in other conversations collectively remembered, and he is saying, Yeah it’s true, we sat there on that porch, yeah, it happened, and you know, the angel of death was sitting right there with us in one of those comfortable rocking chairs you love, rocking away as we talked and talked, and wishing he could have a taste of our sweet red wine and jump into our conversation.
Angels, you know, are hungry for conversation.
Resa Alboher is an editor of St. Petersburg Review, and has had work published in Scapegoat Review, The Edison Literary Review, and in The Breath of Parted Lips, Voices from the Frost Place, Volume 2. She is thrilled to have another piece appearing in Black Heart Magazine and invites everyone to visit her home in the virtual world of the blogosphere, which can be found at climbmountfuji.com. Her home in the somewhat less virtual, but not in the least less surreal world, is in the old center of Moscow, Russia.