Allen in Memory
by David Cope
2005: it's been eight years since Allen gasped his final message into my telephone answering machine, my daughter Anne racing downstairs near midnight to shake me awake: "Dad, Allen's on the phone, and he sounds terrible!" By that point, even those of us who had known him closely had difficulty getting through in the deep night. Allen had always been quite literally generous to a fault, taking calls all through the night—arranging his poetry ambassador trips to exotic destinations on the far side of the globe, arguing with neurotic fame worshippers or catching up with a favorite heart-son who had moved him to tears with a youthful lament. In the final years, his doctor had insisted that he shut the phone off and route the calls to a machine—his sleep was too important, his health too fragile. As a result, I sat through much of the night with his last answering machine message, his personal farewell, delivered in a voice that sounded so unlike him that I found myself pacing my floor, wondering what had become of him.
By morning, I had already decided that I'd take a week off from my job and tend him as a nurse. The question arose: which week? I was certain that the two Peters, Bob Rosenthal, Andy, and hordes of other poets would no doubt be there to nurse him or chase the same thought I had. We had all awakened with his "Howl" and grew with his encouragement, and he'd challenged us to expand our horizons even as he found editors who would publish our poems and make our own careers seem like more than the vain hopes of dreamers. I thought of my own passages with him: singing Campion and Dowland songs at 3 a.m. in a Boulder apartment; sitting at an oatmeal-and-seaweed breakfast with Carl Rakosi as Allen castigated a guilt-ridden caller, insisting that he quit blaming his religion for his neurotic wish to cut his balls off; racing across the Brooklyn Bridge in a madhouse taxi or cruising uptown to a reading at the 67th Street Y, always agog with the wild traffic and excited that these were indeed fruits of the excited imagination to be shared with other poets who'd all grown under his tutelage, all of us on a roll. Then, too, there were the quiet moments shared in Ann Arbor or at Yankee Springs in his later years, sitting together silently after his great labors of reciting "Howl" or "Kaddish" to a packed Hill Auditorium or musing together as Gelek spun his tale of enlightenment in the wooded lake sunset.
I would, I decided, ask for a week that was not already taken, and plan accordingly: perhaps I could be among those who could be by his side as he made his way on his last journey. The phone rang: Bill Morgan, his faithful bibliographer, asked if I was sitting down—and I knew then what had happened. Would I be willing to serve as a contact person for the press when they began calling? I thought to myself, this is a strange way to cool Allen's brow or recite old Reznikoff in his ear, but of course it was what the moment demanded. I would spend my day fielding calls, at the same time musing back to the first days when his poetry had awakened me from teenage rages to an awareness that might not have come so clearly and so quickly. How many roads I had traveled to meet him, and having met him and traveled with him, how many more roads I had gone down as I grew at last to be one who could speak for him when his day was done.
Note: "Allen in Memory" appeared in the Paterson Literary Review 35. Ed Maria Mazziotti Gillan. (summer, 2006).