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My Old Hero

A Tribute to Barry Spacks


I once visited an exhibit at a museum in Baltimore on Japanese basket-making where I learned of the basket-maker’s long apprenticeship. An aspiring basket-maker spends 10 years with his master, and 10 years doing lots of menial stuff, sweeping, preparing meals, sharpening tools, helping with the laundry. And the master apparently never teaches the apprentice directly. The apprentice learns slantwise, by studying the master on the sly, peering over his shoulder or poking around the workroom after the master has retired for the evening. Leaving the exhibit I told my wife that such a relationship made me think of mine with Barry, my colleague, officemate, and friend who died this week.

Barry Spacks

I’ve long considered myself Barry Spacks’s unofficial apprentice. And though he didn’t make me sweep or do the laundry, I did immerse myself in his world for years, fastidiously watching him — whether he was breaking lines in poems, making matzo brei on Saturday mornings, or sweeping the sand off the palms of his feet with his socks after our walks on Hendry’s Beach.

For years and years, I was always peering over his shoulder, always poking around.

I first met Barry in a poetry workshop at UCSB. I was 18 or so, here in Santa Barbara taking a couple summer school classes. The workshop met in a seminar room on the second floor of South Hall in the afternoons, a room with a view of a sycamore tree, the old gym, and the mountains. And Barry didn’t look like the other professors. There was a wildness to him, something that told you he was intimate with the elements. He had long, frazzled salt-and-pepper hair — hair he wore in a ponytail — and a little gold earring. He sometimes wore a T-shirt that said ENLIGHTENED MIND. He sometimes wore a big sunhat. There was some turquoise in his wedding ring. And he had a beard like Poseidon. But there was something effete about him, too, something mincing, something — to use a Barry word — flaneurial, like he might keep a sprig of lavender in his breast pocket and enjoy rosé wine.

Although the class took place 18 years ago, I remember it well. I remember his alchemical editing (and that’s no overstatement: I remember my mouth literally falling when I heard his revised version of a fellow student’s poem). I remember a generous remark he made about one of my poems. I remember his singular focus, a mind and body that could wholly attend, wholly attend to a student’s remark or word on the page (I’ve encountered few with such magnificently unshardable, such patient, such lush attention, an attention he cultivated through years of meditation). And, most vividly, I remember this little story he told offhandedly while we were finishing class. He told us, with touching relish, that he and his wife, Kimberley, had gotten up in the middle of the night to eat some peach pie. He said the pie was so good they woke up in the middle of the night, padded to the kitchen, and ate more. They just had to.

A black-and-white scan of John Ridland's "Spacktor Tractor" watercolor
Click to enlarge photo

A black-and-white scan of John Ridland’s “Spacktor Tractor” watercolor

We kept in touch afterward by letters. I would send him batches of poems from the East Coast (where I was attending college), and he would promptly write back, with his typical unsparing, zealous edits (he called himself “The Spacktor Tractor”) and savored encouragements. When I applied to grad school, he wrote a rec. And after grad school, I moved back to Santa Barbara, partly because I liked it and had family here, and partly because of Barry. Eventually, by dint of dumb doggedness, the luck of the gods, and Barry’s support, I got a job lecturing at UCSB and eventually became his officemate.

I used to joke with people and say I was in love with Barry. Which wasn’t a lie. I didn’t love him romantically or sexually, no. I loved his manner of being. Barry seemed to know, to quote someone I now forget, “the secret handshake with life.” And what a variety of experience! Raised, as he once put it, in a Jewish ghetto of Philadelphia (where his nickname was, wonderfully, “Phattagatz,” and where he saw, as a boy, Franklin D. Roosevelt drive by in a procession of cars); soldier in the Army and veteran of the Korean War; Fulbright scholar in Cambridge; professor at MIT; professor at the University of Kentucky (where he met his beloved wife, Kimberley); devoted student of Buddhism (so devoted he spent six or so years with Kimberley living in a Buddhist center in Northern California); celebrated writer and painter; husband and father; thriving professor at UCSB (he was the first member of the English department to win the Distinguished Professor in Humanities award); Poet Laureate of Santa Barbara (a job he did with, to quote a poem of his, “the ungrudged sweat of care”); and humblingly tireless supporter of the arts (if, as William Blake put it, the most sublime act is to put the other before you, then Barry was indeed sublime).

And then there’s the writing. After spending years with his work and years reading the work of others, it occurred to me at a certain point that my teacher, dear friend, and officemate just so happened to be one of the best poets in America. And I don’t say that lightly. Encyclopedic in terms of technique (Barry was a lifelong and painstaking student of craft) and rich with soul, the writing is magnificent, food for the journey. In fact, if you were here with me now, right here in my little office as I write this, I would read you a few poems of his. And then a few more. And then a few more after that. What an ear he had! What psychological insight! What red-bloodedness! What tonal range! What holy tomfoolery!

Barry Spacks
Click to enlarge photo

Dan Gerber

Barry Spacks

In the main, Barry was a “wisdom writer,” a poet of praise, one attuned — contagiously — to the music of what is. He was also a medicine man of sorts, a healer, a writer who helpfully explored our various sufferings and blindnesses and confusions. Everybody from Robert Pinsky to Tobias Wolff to Ted Kooser to Maxine Hong Kingston to David Ferry knew of his literary powers. Apparently Tobias Wolff kept his poem “An Emblem of Two Foxes” on his bathroom mirror. Garrison Keillor read his work on his radio program. William Boyd recently claimed him as one of his most crucial influences.

After you read Barry’s work, you feel returned somehow, brought back — however slightly — into alignment with reality, with the divine. Though Barry would never have spoken so loftily about his work (or art in general), one gets the sense that such liberation was his highest value. He wrote to set us (and himself) free, to harmonize us with the way things are, to salute the Great Mystery. Yes, he wrote to get published and make a name for himself — “Fame,” he often said, invoking Milton, “is a spur” — but there was definitely something larger guiding him. And if you don’t believe me, listen to this:

The Legend of Kuan Yin

The icons show her, male, female,

many-armed. The legend goes

that wanting force she swore a vow:

May my body crack the day I fail

a single needy being! Of course

she failed, and in her brokenness

became herself, for from the thousand

fissures where her very body

cracked from willing mercy grew

the thousand arms

and thousand hands

of compassion.

See what I mean?

This morning I sat down at a small table at a café in Summerland expressly to remember some of the important things Barry taught me. In the margins of a book, I wrote down the following phrases, a few phrases that, I think, get at Barry, phrases I’d like to briefly flesh out:

NEGATIVE CAPABILITY

A few times over the years Barry told me that poet John Keats’s idea of “Negative Capability” — the ability to thrive in the ambiguity of this world, to rest in uncertainty, in not knowing — was a lighthouse of sorts. Indeed, one of Barry’s shining attributes was his freedom from dogma, his suspicion of purism. He was deeply attuned to the double or paradoxical nature of truth. This, I know, strengthened his compassion (and self-compassion) and made him approachable as a teacher and friend. You got the sense when talking to Barry that little could shock him, that no matter what you said, he could “hold the space.”

ORA ET LABORA

If I were to guess, Barry knew this gem from Latin: Work is prayer. To watch Barry type at the computer, edit a student’s poem, or cut some chives was to see someone wholly offered up, inspiringly “present,” someone in prayer.

LIFE IS A HARD-HAT JOB

This was something he said to me a few times, especially if I was complaining. Indeed life is.

KEEPING YOUR SHOULDERS BACK

A definition of style Barry oft invoked.

WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS

When I asked him once who his favorite writer was, he said there were so many, too many to count. Unwilling to relent, I asked him again. There are just too many, he said, shaking his head. Still stubborn, I asked again. Yeats, he finally said. It’s William Butler Yeats.

ART UNDOES THE COARSENING

“Coarsening” was a word he used maybe 20 or so times with me. It was his belief that art undoes the coarsening of life, the coarsening that accompanies writing résumés and responding to emails, driving fast on freeways and drinking out of plastic cups. Reading Mary Oliver or listening to Louis Armstrong (two of his favorites) makes us sensible again, able to sense, and beauty-ready, and more vulnerably and reverently and fully alive.

DON’T PUT THE OX’S LOAD ON THE COW

This is one of Atisha’s slogans, an Indian teacher he loved, a slogan he taped to his computer at home. (His computer was at times downright raggedy with wisdom-rich stick-its.) I once asked him what the slogan meant to him. Some people just can’t do certain things, he said, can’t act in certain ways. They’re not oxen. And that goes for me, too.

FREEDOM IS HERE, THE DOOR TO YOUR CELL IS OPEN

Barry Spacks spent years doing what poet Rainer Maria Rilke called “heart work.” He took pains to become more awake, more fully fledged, whether it was through meditation or therapy or art-making. (This heart-work is beautifully explored in his various writings.) And toward the end of his life, he seemed to come to know a great spaciousness, a theretofore untasted ease of and delight in being. Which is not to say, he walked around blissful and unharassed. No. Who the hell does? But he seemed to’ve noticed his cell door was open, that he didn’t need to do anymore time before living the huge freedom. And it was inspiring. And said to the rest of us: You can do the same thing. There is nothing stopping you.

~

As I was leaving the room where Barry died at Serenity House, as I was looking for the final time at his body, his body freshly dead, I saw his friend Neal Crosbie bend down close to his still, green-gray, white-bearded face and say to him:

Fly, old friend, fly.

All at once, the Great Mystery moved through me like a wind. The Great Mystery all around us. The Great Mystery here and here and here. The Great Mystery now and now and now.

And I felt him. I felt Barry, my old hero, flying.

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