Riley is dead.
I remember a time when no one would come to our poetry readings, and Riley, all black bursting curls of how else would you describe it but poetic hair? said to me “Fuck them all! We will go where they are!”
I knew exactly what he was thinking and where he was thinking of going. So, I said “Then we are going to have to be awfully fucking good – or they will kill us.”
“Exactly,” Riley replied, simultaneously wild-eyed and sensible.
So it came that we walked coolly, coldly, because it was a Canadian winter night and it was fucking cold and that was good because we were hot and aware of what we were planning, and we walked into the Hangman’s bar and we ordered beers and stood around smoking joints for awhile with anyone that knew us, and we were only starting to be afraid, so we smoked and drank some more, and then Riley said “it’s time.”
I sat down with the loudest, hecklingest bastards in the room, and Riley calmly climbed onto a table and addressed the crowd who by this point were momentarily silent, perhaps stunned:
“No one wants to hear my poetry —
So fuck my poetry – who needs poetry!”
(Except you kind of have to hear it, this is a wild eyed
black haired flaming man of inordinate handsomeness and heat,
exceptionally loud, and he stressed the word fuck so lustfully
it was as if he caressed it in front of us—
and the room falls dead silent.)
Then he hollers like Jimmy Swaggart North
Fuck poetry – who needs poetry
fuck this shirt – who needs this shirt?”
and he begins to tear that t-shirt from his body.
He rips it off, not slowly, lovingly,
but fighting the material every inch,
the damn fucking thing is not tearing
nothing is going as planned because
we didn’t plan a goddamned thing—
and so far Riley is succeeding beyond our wildest dreams.
“Yeah! tell us about your goddamn poetry,” I shout.
And Riley shouts back “What the fuck do YOU know about poetry?”
I turn to these tattooed mustachioed bastards beside me and we all shout,
“Go ahead you fucking asshole — tell us a poem,”
as if we planned it that way,
as if Riley just happened to be standing on a table ripping his shirt off
waiting to be asked to recite a poem.
So he chants, he declaims, he spouts impossibilities
that make people laugh and clap and shout back.
Now I get up on the table (one of the first table dancers of Ontario —remember, it was illegal back then) pouting poesy at the bikers I played euchre with every Tuesday, shouting, declaiming, spouting such profound pro bono implausibilities that I invent an unforgettable poem ON THE SPOT (which will not be repeated here), until everyone in the room was shouting with me and at me, and Riley is back up on his table shouting me, and every one else, down with another blast of words that takes them by storm, and it is a revival meeting of voice and poem and chant and a wild-eyed black haired sprout leading them all, Dionysos belting it out one more time and all the Maenads go wild … .
And so it begins.
The Ex-TEMP-or-ANEOUS Peterborough Poets Riley calls us. The poets come to us, because they want in on the occasion, to rise to the occasion, to BE the occasion, and it is wild and wooly, naïve and invulnerable, obsessive and artistic – and that is just one of us – imagine a room full (it would seem that way though there might be 6, or 4, or 8 of us – the numbers were fluid, it was the nature of the thing) and when it got too much for us, we would road-trip to Ottawa, or Toronto and go to a bar and jump on the tables to prove to ourselves we weren’t just local, until we spilled into our city, our country, radio and television to find others just like us, get another toehold into a place we could invade with our words, as if we could consume the entire world in one perfect moment, one perfect phrase.
And Ian David Arlett came, with poems even better than ours, and delivery better than ours, and we were sore afraid, and gave him room on the table;
And Michael Dennis, who simply had no fear, could read a poem that would cause such opposition and anger that he would fan it into a flame that would become a flash fire that lit everyone’s candle as surely as he left them slightly singed;
Richard Harrison, who would stand on a table after all this, and recite poems – POEMS! — barefaced, bald in your face, POEMS and everyone would just … shut up and listen, and none of us could ever figure out how he did it, so we never told him “don’t”;
and Dennis Tourbin who was older and an adult and a painter and some kind of poet/ artist who came from Port Dalhousie, whose paintings were full of words and poems full of paint – and he wanted in, so we said “Grab a table,” and he did —
and we were a Hit – a Smash – we were lit with flames and we knew it and liked it and wanted more.

And we got more – we all did – in our own way. Tourbin painted and poemed and travelled the globe to artistic events where he was acclaimed as artist and poet; Richard has books and publications and was nominated for the Governor General’s Award; Michael has more books than all of us combined, both published and self-published;
and me – I rocked and I rhymed, lived as Rilke advised, started a business that flew high and then died – started a family, and then one of us died — and I was struck dumb for 7 years and my heart turned to stone – but now I must try to apply old alchemy, to remember, to make ode, to sing elegy.

Because Riley is dead.
Because I want my brother back.
Now that you have heard,
stop …
wait for the shirt to tear –
listen, Listen! With All Your Heart,
all anyone needs written plain to see —
this beautiful man stands on a table before you and demands,
“FUCK POETRY — WHO NEEDS POETRY!!”

© Ward Maxwell. 2014

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