Robert’s poems were meant to be heard. Whenever he showed up during our Second Saturday Readings in Wilmington, whether during the open segment or during those times when he was the feature, his reading of his own work had the capacity to nearly enchant the listener, not with just the music of his words and his delivery of them but with the vivid quality of images they provoked. One could see in one’s mind’s eye the scenes he portrayed in his poems better than that found in many other good poems.
I don’t know the full circumstances of Robert’s death, nor do I really want to. I know he died long before he should have left us. This much I do know, and it’s relevant. With many poets, the force that compels the composition of poetry comes from a mixture of love and haunting. Most poets are haunted by those demons that compel us to strike out against them with words, and strangely enough words seem to be the most affective weapon against them. Robert was no different in those regards. Yet, sometimes life’s situations exacerbate those inner struggles with those demons. I do know that Robert’s apartment building, which was administered through public housing, had sustained a fire that was serious enough to rehouse the building’s residents. Knowing Robert as I had caused me to suspect the event sent him into an emotional tailspin. I’d been told that Robert’s death was at his own hand and that he had evidently destroyed all his poems along with his mortal coil.
Of his published work, the only examples known to have survived appeared in the local literary periodical Palengenesis. In the mid 1980s I had the occasion to record Robert reading a couple of his poems for the Dreamstreets radio program. To my knowledge this was the only recordings of him reading his work and can be found among the Dreamstreets archive linked from this site. During a memorial event held for Robert I made copies of this recording for those who wished to have them. The recording was played for those at this memorial event. Some in attendance wept while declaring they thought they’d never hear his voice again. It warmed my heart to know I had provided this small token.
But the story doesn’t end here.
Some weeks later a mutual friend of Robert’s and mine informed me that some months before Robert had given our friend an envelope full of his poems. Initially the announcement provided the prospect that his work had survived. However, this disclosure was made to me by our mutual friend after he had also been subjected to another inner city housing shuffle, this time by a mortgage predator who had forced our friend to make a frenzied move to another living arrangement. Articles in his house were divided among newer accommodations in his extended family. Other things were allowed to dribble into places unknown. In his new accommodations my friend looked for that envelope containing Robert’s poems in great earnest. After all, Robert was his friend as well. But the envelope could not be found. Maybe it’s around somewhere and will turn up, but as time goes by the chance of that becomes less likely. Perhaps in another frantic act of a being forced to forsake comfort and security, a more real demon than the ones with which many poets and artists struggle had had a role to play, a demon real enough to hasten the destruction of a poet and his work as well as a demon real enough to lull us into forgetting.