BILL MOHR’S TRIBUTE ROBERT PETERS

Tribute to Robert

Last Friday, before heading up here, Linda and I attended a record release party for Michael C. Ford’sLook into each other’s ears. Harlan Steinberger, the producer and impresario behind Hen House Studios in Venice, made use of his new facilities in Venice to host one of the most impressive gatherings of poets on a single evening outside of any formal literary event in recent years. Everyone was delighted to see Michael’s remarkable blend of cultural skepticism and wistful irony still finding wide-spread support.

Perhaps the evening’s most delightful surprise was the presence of Paul Trachtenberg, the surviving spouse of the late Bob Peters. I had exchanged a few notes with Paul since learning of Bob’s death, and while Paul sounded in his messages, both to me and others on Facebook as if a kind of rare solace had taken possession and drenched his inner self with equanimity, I hardly expected him to be at Harlan and Michael’s party. Seeing Paul reminded me of his request that we remember and celebrate Bob’s life not in a public gathering, but in the privacy of our own reading. Get one of his books from your shelf, he urged us, and read a favorite poem.

For the past several days, I have been intermittently dipping into Gauguin’s Chair, a volume of selected poems from his first years as a poet. The title page reads “1967-1974,” but this refers more to the publication dates of the books from which the poems are drawn. (For reasons of sentiment, perhaps, the original sales slip is still in the book: 5-18-80. 4.95 plus 30 cents tax, purchased from A Different Light Bookstore: Gay Literature/Periodicals/Aesthetera. 4014 Santa Monica Blvd. (at Sunset), Hollywood, CA 90029 (213) 668-0629).

In an interview conducted by Billy Collins in April, 1974 (when Collins was a grad student at UC Riverside), Peters talked about how the sound of words is the primal attraction of poetry. “I keep sayingear when I talk about poets. I may perhaps be too attuned to sound. I luxuriate in splendid sounds in poems, my own as well as other people’s.” Peters had the rare ability to intermingle “splendid sounds” with a wide range of subject matter, including historical subjects such as Ann Lee of the Shakers or King Ludwig of Bavaria.

Peters began his creative career at a relatively late point in his life. The sudden death of his son, Richard, on February 10, 1960, at the age of four and a half, left Peters unable to derive sufficient meaning from his life as a professor of literature, and he began writing poems, many of which addressed the cauterizing loss of his child due to a one-day illness. These poems eventually were collected in Songs for a Son. As an example of the pleasure he took in “splendid sounds,” let us savor nine lines from a poem in that first book“Transformation”:

Between death’s

hot coppery sides

the slime of birth

becomes a chalky

track of bone

compressed in time

to slate, or gneiss,

or marble – pressed

lifeless into stone.

The overall pattern of iambic dimeter is remarked upon in a fine instance of metapoetry: “compressed in time” refers not just to the brevity of the son’s journey in life, but to the constricted metamorphosis enacted as “compressed” becomes “pressed” in the stanza’s penultimate line. The layered internal rhyme of gneiss and lifeless provides the solemn intonation that completes the move from slime to stone. Splendid concatenation, indeed!

As the kind of memorial requested by Paul, though, and since I am in mountains now, at 5,000 feet, I have decided to share with you a poem by Bob that is rarely (if ever) reprinted in anthologies. Here is part eight of “Mt. San Gorgonio Ascent”:

At a drop below

hangs a cloud, mercurial.

The mountain it claims

gloats green, lung-red, and blue.

Pines flare. Boulders

glow. Light falls

Total mountain,

total drift of mist,

of flesh. The trance

is my own.

My hand is a peach

attached to a limb

swung over a gorge.

It hangs beyond all reach

gathers ripeness in.

Ichor swells the vein,

proceeds to the nipple end.

A bee strikes, hovers over.

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