Wednesday, April 21, 2010
ROBERT TRAMMELL R.I.P.
I just found out the Texas poet Robert Trammell passed away in 2006! I'm so saddened by this news and so sorry I didn't get to see him more before his death.
I first met Bob back in the '60s, introduced to him by my good friend the late poet James Haining. Jim had started a small magazine called Salt Lick when he was at Quincy College in Illinois and I passed through to do a poetry reading. He asked my advice about starting it and ran some names for it by me. We became fast friends and he quickly introduced me to work by his writer friends from his native Texas, including Bob.
In the early '70s, Jim moved to Baltimore to work on a graduate degree (and started publishing beautiful books under his Salt Lick logo, eventually including two of Trammell's—GEORGE WASHINGTON TRAMMELL and LOVERS/KILLERS) and Trammell moved for a while to Manhattan (maybe in part because Gerald Burns, an eccentric but brilliant poet friend of his and Jim's was living and teaching in New York at the time), the Chelsea neighborhood, which in those days was pretty rough.
I remember him telling me a story, when his wife and he visited my then wife and me in DC where we were living at the time, about being surrounded on a sidewalk in Chelsea by a bunch of tough "little kids" who threatened him and his wife and when Bob ignored them started kicking and punching him.
They got away, but Bob was shaken by the experience and gave up on New York. He had spent time in a Texas prison in the '60s. Back in those days some states, like Texas, were so extreme about enforcing drug laws even with minimal amounts of marijuana that I had several friends do time there under horrible conditions.
Bob had been just a young Texas hippie when he went into prison, but he came out a grown man with a big chip on his shoulder when it came to any sympathy for the hardened criminals who physically abused him in all the ways you can imagine. But at his core was a gentle, kind, generous spirit as I experienced him.
Despite some of the things he wrote about that experience, like these lines from GEORGE WASHINGTON TRAMMEL:
"In prison I learned
not to be a good fighter
or carry a knife
CUT the big artery in the back of the leg
of the man asleep who offered you the zoozooes"
(When I was in basic training in the service in Texas years before Bob's prison experience, a guy in my barracks actually cut the big artery in another guy's ankle with a razor while the victim was sleeping, revenge for what we never found out.)
I saw Jim frequently in the early '70s before I moved back to Manhattan myself, and Bob quite often as well, either in the city or in DC when he came to visit. But then he returned to Texas (last time he visited me in New York was in 1980, two years before I moved to LA) and Jim moved too, back to Texas for a bit but eventually ending up in Portland, Oregon, where once again he set up some readings for me and introduced me to a group of local writers there, all of whom were not only terrific writers but became great friends.
Jim had a knack for making friends and drawing people to him. Bob was a little different as a result of his prison experiences. But he became a central figure in the Texas poetry scene (he was central to the Dallas poetry community in more ways than one). We stayed in touch pretty regularly for years, but with my own moves, and Jim's and his, after a while I mainly stayed current with Bob through Jim's updates.
Then Jim began to deteriorate from a bad case of MS. Last time I saw him in Portland he was getting around by wheelchair. Finally he moved back to Texas and into a nursing home where he spent his last years. When he died, Bob called to tell me. He said he was with Jim toward the end and that Jim was in a coma but at one point he sat straight up in his hospital bed with his eyes still closed and seemingly still in the coma and said: "I have known happiness!"—then laid right back down and shortly afterwards sat right up again and repeated: "I have known happiness!" and then laid down for good.
Bob said he was planning a memorial for Jim but it wouldn't be for a while. We talked a few more times over the following weeks and I was looking forward to going down to Texas for Jim's memorial and seeing Bob. But then I stopped hearing from him and I was going through some major changes in my life, including separation and health problems and more moves, so I never recontacted Bob about the memorial for Jim and when I did make some inquiries I came up blank.
Now I know why. I never got the news that Bob had passed, and then this morning I was looking through some books on my shelves and pulled down Bob's LOVERS/KILLERS and wondered what he was up to and then thought of using the web to see what I could find out and there were these obituaries for him from 2006. It breaks my heart in the way that unexpected sad news can.
The only thing I can think to sooth that is to read his poems and hear his voice inside again. The gift he left us.