Lessons of Time, Velocity, and Hard Music: Remembering Walt Pavlich

By Thomas Aslin

This morning I searched through my file cabinet before latching onto a file of letters and postcards from the late poet Walter Pavlich. One card, mailed from New Orleans, and covered with Walt’s odd, inky scrawl—half in cursive, half in crabbed-print-style lettering—refers with some heat to the scantily dressed blonde on the flip-side: a French Quarter dancer that danced for him and his buddy, Jack Heflin, “just the other evening on Bourbon Street.” They were in the midst of a road trip to Florida, driving from Missoula to Gainesville in June of 1982.

Having just separated from my wife that May, I moved from Olympia, Washington, where I taught high school English, to Missoula for the summer. Putting most of my belongings in storage, I drove straight through, shuttling past Spokane, my hometown. I was too ashamed to stop, to talk with family or friends there. The next day I rented an apartment close to downtown and settled in. For days my spirits were buoyed by my visits with friends, by talking with Walt about Dick Hugo and our time in the writing program at the University of Montana. Missoula was a town filled mostly with good memories for me. But on the morning Jack and Walt left on their trip, selfishly I was sorry to see them go.

Within a week another card, postmarked Gainesville, followed the one from New Orleans. Walt wrote of a fine afternoon and evening spent in the company of the novelist Harry Crews. Back in Missoula I gathered Walt’s mail, gave birth to a series of horrid little poems, and since I could not sleep straight through the night read a novel nearly every day.

~ ~ ~ ~

Walt and I became friends shortly after we first met, though we were not always comfortable with each other. In many ways we were a lot alike. Walt, who could be quite emotional at times, felt things strongly. I believe this is a good quality, though not one that’s always prized or understood. A good friend of Walter’s, the poet William Heyen, told me Walt stopped mid-block one evening in Davis, California, while walking after dinner with Heyen and his wife, with Walt’s wife, the poet Sandra McPherson, to sit on a stone bench. Heyen learned that Walt had noticed a homeless man on the street and when seeing him disheveled and in badly worn clothes needed to sit for a minute and collect himself. And though as sensitive and astute as he was, Walt possessed or was possessed by a broad and quirky sense of humor as well, was drawn to the slapstick humor of silent film stars and the harlequin pathos of pantomime. And of course anyone who knew Walt knew he wore his heart if not literally on his sleeve close to it. As much as anything, this was a quality that endeared him to others, this and his passion for the blues, jazz and gospel music, art and antiques, fine writing, for poetry.

Later after he quit drinking and helped others maintain their sobriety, I heard his generosity and helping hand were theirs for the asking. As it turns out he may have been admired for his kindness as much or more as he ever was for his fine writing.

~ ~ ~ ~

When I first met Walt at Cannon Beach, Oregon, at The Haystack Writers’ Conference in the summer of 1977, his hair was long, hung past his shoulders. His demeanor calm, controlled. We were enrolled in Dick Hugo’s poetry workshop, a ten day class bracketed around a free weekend: Each morning a three hour session was held in a small grade school less than a block from the beach. By the second day of the workshop we were hoping to enroll in the MFA program at the University of Montana, though neither of us believed we had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting in.

The second poem Walt brought to class began with a bit of family history and was set in his grandfather’s butcher shop on Front Street where meat was sold cheap and wrapped in butcher paper on gray days on the Portland waterfront. The poem had rain in it. Rain mixed with zinfandel dreams, depression era work, bridges and bridge tenders. This sounds about right. Coupled with Walt’s innate love for his ancestors was an utter fascination and love for crows, for rain, for walnut trees and their fruit, for lifting free weights at his parents’ home in southeast Portland, for boneyards and boozy evenings, for his father’s friends, for bohunks living in the old neighborhoods, for his father’s thirty some years of labor in iron foundries, for the beauty of his mother when his parents met and were later married.

His imagery had surprising turns annealed with a close examination of what lay in front of him. I was intrigued by his unusual sensibility, his sense of the absurd, his passion, always his passion. He liked an image of mine in a poem about my father’s grain elevator: baby chicks doing a bloody foot-dance in their wire cage home. From a brief exposure to each other’s work and through a shared love for Hugo’s poems and Hugo’s teaching, a friendship deepened.

Hugo was in grand form those two weeks. Of course he knew there was fresh meat in the room and having recently finished the essays collected in The Triggering Town, he taught from it, taught with brusque humor and a touch of fire. He turned students’ good poems into better poems with the quick twist of a phrase or with a nuanced suggestion. He took our poems and praised certain moves made or a tone found in the language. He particularly liked one of Walter’s poems, saying, “Though he writes a bit like me here, he won’t for long. His language, his attention to rhythm and sound, will serve him well.”  Other than a few younger poets like us, and a few older women, there were several other men and women in class who were quite good. It seemed they had been in Dick’s classes before (or other classes there) and brought an intelligence and verve to their poems that some of us did not.

One morning after class Hugo invited Walter and me to join him and another poet from the class for lunch at the Talovana Inn. I had a car so I drove us (Dick, Walt, and myself) south along the beach to meet with Victoria Wittenberg, a poet who had a house in town near the beach. Nothing much transpired at lunch other than Walt and I sitting at the table nearly mute while Dick spoke blithely to Victoria. I’m convinced he would’ve talked to us, too, if we’d been able to make our mouths work, if we had spoken more than a few monosyllabic words and had turned those words into anything resembling sentences. I am sure Dick paid for our lunch. He was generous with students. Despite our nearly stony silence, we were delighted to see how greedily Hugo stuffed French fries smothered in ketchup into his mouth, and how while lingering at the cashier’s desk on our way to the parking lot, he grabbed a fistful of mints from a cut glass bowl near the till and began popping them into his mouth. His appetites were not easily appeased. This pleased us immensely.

Over time we’d laugh and laugh again when recalling the scene. For most of the rest of our days at Cannon Beach, I recall Walter telling me “to lighten up.” And I remember coming up with a silly slogan he’d have printed on T-shirts for us, the words becoming our mantra for a time: Think Missoula.

Over the next seven months we wrote poems, sent them to one another for critique, and made application to the University of Montana’s MFA program. During these months each of us visited the other twice. On his first visit to Seattle, we toured Hugo and Roethke haunts: found Hugo’s boyhood home in White Center, visited Roethke’s classroom in Parrington Hall at the University of Washington where his workshops were held (appropriately a greenhouse sat just beyond the classroom windows), and rummaged through the Roethke Papers in Special Collections at Suzzallo Library. When I visited Walt in Eugene where he was finishing his degree in English at the University of Oregon, I slipped into one of John Haislip’s classes. Haislip, a former student of Roethke’s, spoke of Roethke that day, then spoke in Roethke’s voice, a voice I’d heard in a movie about Roethke (“In a Dark Time”) and on Caedmon Records. I was delighted. Poems Walt sent to me during this time included lines such as:

Die once then leave
The death alone; 
In my dream 
A river stops
Birds lose their way. 
Above the trees 
The moon shows 
One face at a time 
And I fall gently
To the roar
Of its perfect whirl.    

In another poem he wrote:

Leave Blue River blue. 
It remains the only passage 
Left certain. And then this: 
Alarm is in the quiet.
Lay your hands on the tracks 
Feel the train howl 
Deeper than any wind.

 

And then a short, stunning poem that he enclosed in a later letter:

The Closing 
 
Two hours along a quiet road
I tramp the first tracks
Of a woods heavy with snow.
 
Grandmother
Is this how it was
The corners folding
The room closing
In white?

~ ~ ~ ~

After Walt returned from his road trip to Florida, we went fishing with Dick, spent the better part of two days with him. Dick died two months after I returned from my escape to Missoula. I was shocked when I was tracked down at my brother’s house on Mercer Island and told over the phone by my mother-in-law of his sudden death. And like many was bereft with the loss. I had heard Dick read in Seattle at Blessed Sacrament Church in the University District less than five weeks before. And though he didn’t look well and hadn’t for some time, no one would have imagined or thought to dwell on what was coming.

Walt would write two elegies for Dick. The first, “A Recommendation for the Dead,” appears in Ongoing Portraits (Barnwood, 1985). The second, “The Final Trout,” in Running Near the End of the World (University of Iowa Press, 1992). I like both poems, though “The Final Trout” is a stunning piece of work and speaks at least in part to that last fishing trip we took with Dick. We were skunked the first time so Dick suggested we try again. The following week we arrived at his house on Wylie Street at the appointed hour with fresh worms in hand. He said he’d slept poorly the previous evening and wasn’t feeling well that morning. He suggested we try again in a couple of days. Before leaving we noticed an open notebook on the dining table, sharpened pencils and coffee. Two days later Dick brought the new aluminum boat his wife, Ripley, had given him for his birthday. He took us to a beautiful lake not far from Ovando, a curved bank of trees behind the water. The lake was calm, not a boat on it. Dick told us to take the boat out on the lake, said he’d fish from the dock. In those days he fished from a lawn chair, occasionally retrieving a beverage from a cooler. He was a bait fisherman, as my father called them, and threw from the dock the biggest bobber you’ve ever seen, easily the size of a baseball. Walt and I caught a few fish early on, nothing to write home about, but still… Within two or three hours I had five trout on a stringer and Walt four. The last of Walt’s fish hooked after he asked me to help him untangle his line. I’m sure Dick heard our laughter.

Walt was quick to say after bringing in that fish that “Maybe we should let Dick use the boat?” We rowed back toward shore and tied the boat to a cleat on the dock. Hugo, may have been scowling, though in that light, in the shadows of early afternoon who could tell. Dick said, “Tom, you stay in the boat. You and I will take it out.” As he stepped in the boat, it lurched a bit from the dock, I caught sight of a metal plate under the gunnel. The boat’s specifications read: Weight Limit 450 lbs. I did the math. The lake water had risen to the edge of the gunnels. Whenever Hugo rose to cast (and he did often) lake water came close to spilling into the boat. I can’t swim and almost no one knew where I was living that summer. I envisioned some grim headline in the Missoulian the next morning: Renowned Poet Safe After Boating Accident. In small type near the end of the article a brief reference to an anonymous former student who died at the scene.

Dick never caught a fish that day, and Walt and I didn’t catch another. Back at his house, Dick said that Ripley, who was visiting her mother, the novelist Mildred Walker, in the east was flying home the next afternoon, then added, “Ripley loves trout. Do you think I could have a couple?” We felt like heels for not having thought of it first. We left six trout with Dick, saying all we wanted, all we needed were a couple for breakfast one morning.

If you are familiar with his poem, you know Walt says Dick cleaned the fish, “dug it empty with his fat thumb.” Not true. Walt and I cleaned the fish at the lake. In the poem you will find two trout preserved in a freezer and moved from place to place whenever Walt moved. This is mostly true, though there were three trout in that Mason jar, not two. Walt told me the trout made even that last move to Davis, California. This is decidedly true. Walt’s widow, Sandra McPherson, remembers as much, saying they were buried eventually under the root ball of a sapling in the schoolyard across the street from their house.

You will find that I am absent from the poem. I think the poem is better for my absence, though ego being what ego is, I’m sure I didn’t see it that way originally. I hoped to be in someone’s poems someday, especially a poem as good as this elegy. You will find a dog in the poem circling a cabin in the woods the evening after Dick died at Virginia Mason in Seattle. This is true. I talked to Walt the day after Dick’s death and he described the dog and the hound’s curious behavior to me.

When writing a poem, truth and beauty and the facts, such as they are, do their own strange dance. Hugo said in class one evening that reality was a big bore. He knew that the undercurrent of sound and rhythm carried a poem, the good poems. Factual truth is just not very important. In truth the facts often stand in the way of writing a good poem.

In the poem Walter says about the fish he kept and kept frozen:

They have lost their need
for seasons and lie 
together heads to tails 
soldered by a line
of blood and frost 
without one heart
between them.        

 

What’s not to love about “soldered by a line / of blood and frost / without one heart / between them”?

Later he moves us to a scene in which he is twenty and working in a zero-degree warehouse where a salesman would pass one of my hands / under his smoky nostrils…” The salesman adds: “Must have had a good time / last night. There’s only / two things that smell like fish…”

The poem has taken a dramatic turn. And with this abrupt intimation of sex not too far outside the scene, the poem takes us places we never dreamed we’d be going. And then surprisingly he gives one trout [in the poem] to the rather crude salesman. I think we know or suspect where the other is going, but then that dog surfaces. That haunted, haunting canine who, as it turns out,

cleaned 
the afternoon of words, 
then left trotting
away through the snow,

hushed for a way to keep warm.

So many marvelous turns in the poem, such surprising, though believable, even heart-wrenching language in the poem. And at the end, though it is never stated, we are led to believe that the speaker finds himself alone, bereft, and without words. He seems stunned into silence, even speechless, though this is never said directly, only suggested. What is said is that the dog had “left a sound that cleaned / the afternoon of words.”

~ ~ ~ ~

After several years we seldom sent letters to each other, seldom showed each other poems. Mostly we kept in touch with phone calls. Mostly I called him. He wasn’t one to waste his money on long distance calls. Sometimes I’d reach him in Florence, Montana where he lived for a time. Once on a card I received he asked me to call him in Plentywood, Montana. He included a phone number. He was teaching in the Poetry-in-the-Schools program at the time and Plentywood was a long ways from anywhere.

Later when he was living in Portland or in Davis, I would call two or three times a year. Within minutes we’d return to a recurrent theme: our fathers. One of us coined the phrase “the last of the iron men,” which was a good fit. His father, an ironworker at M. Reuter and Sons for much of his working life, lifted free weights in his spare time in his basement with his friends and cronies and his sons. My father owned and operated a grain elevator in the Spokane Valley and for years had done a lot of hard physical labor there. His hobbies, his loves, were hunting the bluffs and canyons of the Snake River and fishing that river and a multitude of lakes. Even these activities helped him stay in shape. They were tough men who’d come of age during the harshest of times: both teenagers at the beginning of the depression, both serving in World War II. My father in the navy. George Pavlich in the merchant marines. Both had families rather late. Both were as “tough as nails,” spoke what they thought no matter who was around. I’d learn my father was better read, perhaps, but both men loved words and stories and loved it would seem to hold their sons close to a hot grill on occasion.

~ ~ ~ ~

Not long after Walter and I found an apartment to share and moved to Missoula, his parents and his mother’s sister, Ruby, came to town. Within short order we took them to the Eastgate Lounge and Package Store where we found the novelist Jim Crumley ensconced one fine afternoon. He asked us to join him. Beer was ordered. Walt introduced his father, his mother, his aunt. Jim was delighted to meet them. The air was punctuated with laughter. Then during a lull in conversation, Walt’s father took a long, sober look at Crumley and said loud enough for anyone in the bar to hear, “So you’re one of the tin gods he’s always talking about.” Crumley erupted with laughter.

Often when talking on the phone one of us would voice problems he was having with his father. The other, though sympathetic, would see the outrageous humor in the situation and laugh until both of us were caught up in the dark humor. At other times what we shared about a father’s abusive words or behavior was no joke no matter how it was told.

My father died in late 2000 on my mother’s birthday. I began writing about him in a feverish pitch. I carried many of the notebooks I was working in to work. While driving a Seattle metropolitan bus, occasionally there was time at the end of the line to add to the notebooks or go over what I had written. Other than notebooks, I carried poetry books, On the day my backpack was stolen, I was carrying several books written by friends and a signed copy of Walt’s last book, The Spirit of Blue Ink. I was broken for a time by the theft. Seven notebooks were filled with drafts of poems about my father, notes for poems, thoughts and memories, even the physical details of several rooms in my father’s house: his bathroom, his kitchen, his bedroom. The theft took place just a year or so after my father’s death so when I called Walter to tell him of this and to ask him to send me another copy of his book, he said what you’d want a good friend to say: “You will write those poems again. They will be different, but you will write them again.”

Several weeks after talking with Walt, I received a phone call from another friend, Rick Robbins, a classmate of ours at Montana. He told me Walt had died. I remember immediately thinking car wreck or mugging or something of the sort. I even said as much over the phone. It was difficult to believe he had died, apparently from a heart attack in his sleep or upon waking in the evening or early in the morning.

~ ~ ~ ~

I return to his poems often. He’s never far from my thoughts. Just this morning I read an uncollected poem of his that appeared in a magazine named, Fine Madness. From “After the Animal Hospital”:

Old squirrel-chaser, you are grounded now. 
Jupiter’s stacked on the moon tonight 
and you can see just far enough 
into your dish, the cold close milk of heaven. 

I’ve always loved that “cold close milk of heaven.”

In a poem from The Spirit of Blue Ink another cat appears, though in this instance the cat appears with a convict in the exercise yard at a prison:

He loves the beast in a fat way, 
Because it pisses off voluntary jays, 
Because it once backed up 
And sprayed a lieutenant’s pant leg, 
Because it won’t eat what it kills. 

 

Both poems show his unique sensibility and diction, the care he took in choosing his words. Something else I admire is that Walt wrote about family, music and musicians, animals, prisoners, fire fighters, comedians, and his wife, the poet Sandra McPherson. In other words about what he loved and cared for deeply. And the poems matter to us because of the care he took, the humor and passion he infused in them.

Walt and I used to talk about the integrity of the line, how each line was important, that none of its words should be wasted. We were often discussing Roethke when this came up. Take a cold close look at Walter’s poems and you will find his lines have integrity, which is a kind of morality not found in some of the poems favored or fawned over these days.

His poems speak to his inventiveness, his humor, his attention to detail. His unique voice is immoderately present in the work. This is a good thing. In “My Glasses Make Her Sad,” he writes, “I have learned a little more about heaven / From five blind singers from Alabama.” And then , “…I’ll feel my way through the dark, / The braille of the low shoulders of couches, /Cold handshake of a doorknob.” In another, “The Fifth Season,”) this:

I remember students smug with their knowledge
Of the Bible. It was Deuteronomy this,
Galatians that. So I dropped the course.
 
Had we discussed trouble, Jesus’s blues[.]

 

And from the title poem of his last collection, The Spirit of Blue Ink, these couplets,

…A school bell across
The street teaches the lessons
 
Of time, velocity
And hard music. A mirror waiting…

that end with:

And if I’m lucky, I can approach
 
The spirit of blue ink, the glory
Of the hand that works the difficult
 
And the dead, that waits out the past,
Attached as it is, not to a wrist,
 
But the heart. The heart that is
The leaf, that blows its way to you.

 

As Joe Stroud said to me after I sent him a copy of Walt’s last book: “No one writes like him.”

This is obvious when one spends time with Walt’s poems. Surprises abound: “A gospel record, Christ in vinyl from / The Fifties, 33 1/3 hallelujahs / Per minute.” Or as in these lines from “Readiness”:

A Hmong family fishes 
From their Toyota, out of the wind. 
A loon dives under the wake 
Of an incoming vessel.
All of us ready 
For each other. 
Even the missing egret, 
The one with snow in its name.

 

At other times, as in “Etherealness,” he surprises with something as simple as: “The man thought Jesus would have made / A good neighbor, patient, good / With his hands.”

~ ~ ~ ~

In the last stanza of “The Fifth Season,” Walt wrote: “Your soul is a pillow in the dark. / You leave on its feathers. / It takes you to meet your dreams.” I’m not alone in wishing I could meet my dreams every night knowing Walter was inhabiting our physical world, writing his poems, and praying as he says “in the open-air church of his arbor, / Wisteria stars overhead.”

I saw Walt for the last time about a year before he died when another friend, the poet Gary Thompson, and I had lunch with Walt and Sandra at a Mexican restaurant in downtown Davis. We reminisced about Hugo and about the time we took Dick to lunch at the Yankee Clipper just off campus. We insisted we pay this time. Afterwards Walt and I followed Dick at a distance, half a block away. Dick had an unusual walk because of hip trouble and, having lost his good tortoise-shell sun glasses, he took to wearing cheap day-glow knock-offs he’d picked out of a bin at the drugstore. We kept saying to each other, how often are we going to have the chance to watch him? And of course we were delighted by his choice in sunglasses. Every so often Dick would turn and look like you do when you sense someone is watching you, staring at you. But we were careful enough to stay behind the nearest corner of a building or bush. We didn’t want to be discovered. We just couldn’t help ourselves. At the end of our last lunch together in Davis, Walt picked up the bill. We all returned to their house for a longer visit.

I felt as close to Walt as I ever had. I had a wonderful time. So as regrets go, with this friendship I have only a few. He and I had entered a new phase, I think, care and kindness came along with the memories. He said over lunch, “You know I have known you for more than half my life. We’ve been friends more than have my life.”

Regrets? Well, I have a few, but those are part and parcel with what I have learned about time, velocity, and hard music. So much of what I learned early on of poetry was learned in the company of Walt Pavlich, in classrooms he and I sat in together. All of that, as it turns out, is all caught up and mixed too with what I have learned about time, velocity, and hard music. So much so I can hardly separate one from the other.

For Walt’s friendship and for his poems and so much more, I am grateful.