I saw in yesterday's papers that author Kurt Vonnegut and actor Roscoe Lee Brown passed away. Vonnegut was 84 and Brown 81. Both were fascinating, talented, irrepressible figures. Vonnegut, because of his singular works, which combine often science fiction, comedy and political critique, was a major cultural icon for several generations. Brown had a distinctive look, acting touch, and a voice that could heat coffee. I instantly associate both with my youth; I read Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle in junior high school and later tackled Slaughterhouse Five during my high school years (it wasn't on the curriculum), and I watched Brown playing versions of the same character in films, such as Uptown Saturday Night, and on TV shows like Soap, The Cosby Show, and A Different World (well, by then I was an adult, but...). Several other recent passings include the blues singer Dakota Staton, at 76; the actor Calvin Lockhart (also of Uptown Saturday Night fame), at 72, whose beautiful face could make your heart skip; and the artist Sol LeWitt, at 78, a genius of conceptualism, who expanded the boundaries of what we think of as contemporary art. (I also learned that the mother of a very dear friend of my just passed away. What a week.) To all of them, I say, this is but a tiny and inadequate tribute, but thank you.
Once upon a time, I used to have a glass wall in an office I occupied. This was in New York City, back in the last century (it sounds so long ago!). And on that wall, every week I'd post poems facing out so that those who passed by could read them. I did this for a while, posting poems by friends and by well known poets that I'd either type out, print out from what'd been emailed to me, or photocopy. Often people would pass right by the posted poems the first few times, then, for whatever reason, they'd realize that what their eyes glazed past wasn't another flyer or a list of rules for the floor, but a poem! And then many of them would stop and read them. One of the poems that I posted that my itinerant fellow floor mates most liked was "The Other Tiger," by the Argentinian fictionist Jorge Luis Borges. It is a classic poem, one of his finest, and perhaps quintessential in its display of his philosophical playfulness and depth. but I'm not going to post that today. Instead, I think I'll post another, briefer poem by him, which shows his wit and gravity, in keeping with the week's mood.
There is a line by Verlaine I shall not recall,
There is a nearby street forbidden to my step,
There is a mirror that has seen me for the last time,
There is a door I have shut until the end of the world.
Among the books in my library (I have them before me)
There are some I shall never reopen.
This summer I complete my fiftieth year;
Death reduces me incessantly.
Copyright © Jorge Luis Borges, 1967, translated by Anthony Kerrigan, by Grove Press, Inc., from A Personal Anthology.