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November 9, 2009

Remembering Walter Pavlich & The Spirit of Blue Ink

Walter Pavlich was a close friend of mine for almost twenty years. When he died on July 9, 2002, at the age of forty-six, I was devastated. I still am. As too many of us know, you never get over the deaths of good friends, especially when they die young.

In 2000, Walter and his wife, the poet Sandra McPherson, started a press called Swan Scythe, working out of their home in Davis, California. They published a wealth of chapbooks by poets from around the country, including one of my mine. Walter was the managing editor. We saw each other frequently and talked poetry, art and fish decoys a lot; Walter looked over my manuscripts in the early days too; I loved his poems and respected his critical eye.

I remember so well hearing him read for the first time—a gentle reading from his first book, Ongoing Portraits (which sports a cover photo of Walter's father, the buff third of an acrobatic threesome called "The Herculean Trio"), and a few years later from Running Near the End of the World, which won the Joseph Henry Jackson Award from the San Francisco Foundation and the Edwin Ford Piper Award from the University of Iowa Press. (In between he published some chapbooks—I did an ink drawing for the cover of one, Theories of Birds and Water, from Owl Creek Press, 1990; he also published The Lost Comedy, Howlet Press, 1991, a sequence about the Laurel and Hardy duo.)

Walter and I had some things in common. We both taught in the prisons—in fact, it might even have been Walter who got me going in that direction back in the early '90s. We taught at Folsom (at different times), and we both knew a marvelous poet there, a Lifer named Patrick Nolan, who also died too young, of hepatitis, at the age of thirty-six. I still believe that Walter's poem "In the Belly of the Ewe" is one of the finest poems ever written on the subject of prisons/prisoners. Here is the poem in its entirety, from Running Near the End of the World:

In the Belly of the Ewe

And so he told us how he had been sewn
into the belly of a ewe by his father
and a couple of uncles, because his legs
would not unfold after delivery,

as though in the womb the ligaments
had looped around bone and kinked,
heels clamped to thighs, a spiritual
cramp from God, an execration

for what they did not know.
His mother kept next to him in the barn,
pinching off sheep ticks, not sleeping
while the baby slept, helping the animal

to its side when its own legs hardened
from the standing, and kept the hooves
from kicking his exposed tottering head.
On the second Sunday of his life

they slit him free, limbs in a dangle
like severed rubberbands, and slaughtered
the beast with the same knife for that
day's blessed supper. He told us this

in the yard of the world's largest prison,
on the way back to his cell where
he continued to cough up little wet
moths of blood, where he was always

cold, always ashamed, as he gathered
the wool blanket up and around him.

(You can read more about Walter and what he had to say about this poem in the online interview I did with him in Issue 5 of Perihelion.)

In 2001, a year before his death but many chapbooks later in the history of Swan Scythe, Walter's last book came out in Swan Scythe's own series.

The book is The Spirit of Blue Ink, and in many ways it stands as a coda to Walter's work and life. I think it might even be my favorite of Walter's collections, with twenty-five poems and forty-seven pages of titles like "Fatness," and "Faintness," and "Etherealness."

It's a book full of compassionate vision, a book of humor (Walter studied with Richard Hugo at the University of Montana), full of humility and great humanity. Here, in closing is the title poem of the book, still very much alive:

The Spirit of Blue Ink

What, this morning, do I have
As I put out my welcome mat for hope?

Enough millet for six months to keep
My bargain with the finches—I fill,

They eat, and then they fly away.
A yard of Thoreau on the bookshelf,

In case I want a paragraph on sweetgrass,
Floating-heart, or pigweed. Or the dry

Field guide to the ocean, the sea
Still in print, with punctuation.

A gospel record, Christ in vinyl from
The Fifties, 33 1/3 hallelujahs

Per minute. A school bell across
The street teaches the lessons

Of time, velocity
And hard music. A mirror waiting&
A morning movie shot during
The previous war, smiles and cigarettes,

Bright songs and cocktails.
And if I'm lucky, I can approach

The spirit of blue ink, the glory
Of the hand that works the difficult

And the dead, that waits out the past,
Attached as it is, not to a wrist,

But the heart. The heart that is
The leaf, that blows its way to you.

You can find The Spirit of Blue Ink at Swan Scythe's website.

(Note: Pavlich also published a chapbook I haven't mentioned above. Of Things Odd and Therefore Beautiful appeared in 1987, from Leaping Mountain Press.)

— posted by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

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