My mother had three older brothers. The one closest in age to her was a poet, Malcolm Miller. I started to write this post last year, but trying to describe him with words felt like trapping smoke in a net.
When Malcolm was in high school he felt he wasn't learning anything and opened the window and jumped out. He then got a full scholarship to St. John's Prep, an interesting education for a Jewish boy. He went to college at McGill in Montreal, and in the '60's and '70's wrote three poetry books, 'The Summer of the True Gods', 'The Kings Have Donned Their Final Masks' and 'The Emperor of Massachusetts.' Tundra Books published them.
In the '60's he married Sandra, a Canadian Indian, and they rented a house in Rockport, Mass. Sandra had miles long black hair and wore suede, fringed, beaded clothes. I'd gaze up at her and wonder if she was Cher. They had a beagle, Joey, and one of my earliest memories ever is walking Joey with Mal while everyone else is back at their house. Sandra is there making a salad.
This memory then shifts to a horror wax museum in Salem. I'm looking at a woman suspended by a giant hook through her gut, arced backward over a stone slab covered with blood. I try to bury my eyes in his jacket pocket, but his pocket is too high. I only come up to his thigh. His told me there was beauty in everything and I had to learn to see it. He knew I'd be an artist.
Sandra got sick and went back to Montreal for the healthcare. She died and I remember being about 8, in the car with my mother, driving Malcolm to Boston, to get on a ship. He was headed for England, to get away. He traveled to Barcelona, through Europe, back to Spain. He'd send me matches and spare change from around the world. His postcard from Fez said, 'I must confez that Fez is fezinating.'
He went to Canada for a while and lived on Leonard Cohen's couch. He asked Leonard Cohen to write my grandmother letters and he would, the dryest things I've seen.
I turned 9, 10, 11 and in the summers my mother would drive me to the train station in Salem to meet Mal. He and I would train to Gloucester, we'd walk a few miles to Good Harbor Beach then walk back to town. I'd be tired, whining and he'd be talking, oblivious to me. Mal never talked about himself and he didn't tell stories, but he did all the talking. Beauty, sex, the world, in a New England drawl that had a rhythm and rumble like nothing I'd heard. I'd listen, most of it going over my head. In town we'd hit a fisherman's bar, his favorite, and he'd drink cognac and I'd drink fake coffee, lots of milk and a little caffeine. By his eighth cognac I'd be shaking, afraid to use the bathroom, the little bits of coffee adding up to a blood running jolt, and he'd still be talking. "There's a big difference between being bright and being smart," he'd say. My feet would throb. He'd check out the waitress and her ass, then any female ass that passed by the bar, talking, talking, talking.
He'd disappear again, back to Montreal, to Barcelona. He was always writing. Malcolm never stopped writing.
When I was 13 I came home from school and saw a tent pitched in the backyard. Mal was staying there with his new girlfriend. Two days later they were gone; a year later he was back in the tent with a new girlfriend. He wouldn't stay in the house, but would come in to eat. He was like a wild animal, never to be tamed by normal.
My mother and her brothers, they were all a little wacky. A little nuts. Maybe one or two could even be diagnosed as having a touch of mental illness. Each had their eccentricities, all contained under the umbrella of their equally eccentric mother, my grandmother. There were no father figures. All the husbands and fathers, including mine, died young.
When I was a full on teenager, sitting at a drive-in high with my friends, screaming my head off as Jason slashed his way down Elm Street, the ballet of blood flying two stories high, I remembered that woman with the hook through her gut and saw he was right.
I went away to college. His brothers and sister didn't see him that much. Malcolm now lived with his mother, on her couch, and if they came to visit he'd be sure to be gone. He was the favorite and I sensed they envied Mal. Their mother, my grandmother, was one of those women who you could never really know, her self-sufficiency was so thick. Maybe they thought he finally broke through her crust, but the way I saw it, there wasn't a crust to break through. It's hard for me to say this, why I'm not sure, but my mother, her brothers and mother had a narcissism so encompassing, so complete, that in time it became almost became endearing. Almost.
He loved that I went to art school. I knew this because he started stealing art books and sending them to me. About five years after I moved here he came to visit. It was another ten years before I saw him again.
All our family except me thought he was crazy. He didn't work, had no money, no phone number, and the few clothes he had were my father's, given to Mal after my father died. All Mal had was a typewriter, which he wrote on daily. He'd still travel now and then, moving through the world alone. He still lived at his mother's and was supposedly using a room at Salem State University to write in.
From the late '80s to mid '90s I called my grandmother every Sunday. Only once in a great while would Mal get on the phone. He didn't like talking on one, and instead he would sometimes loudly comment on whatever she said to me, then I'd comment back and she'd pass what I said to him. My grandmother would end up in the middle of this abstract phone call, her sense of practicality up in arms.
Mal was robust and his walk was an inch from swagger. When he wasn't writing, he was walking. Occasionally, people my mother knew would see him. A friend of her's saw him walking down Lafeyette Street in a lab coat with a doctor's name stitched on the pocket. He probably stole it out of a science lab at the college. Mal was handsome, doubly so in a crisp white lab jacket, and as women smiled hello he'd nod back, then gesture as if he had rounds to get to.
He was self publishing at this point, printing typed copies of books and selling them to libraries, universities, McGill. I think he was starting to feel troubled inside. I got a call that he disappeared from his mother's house, no one could find him. Two weeks later he showed up after living on the streets in Boston. My uncle Harvey drove down and put him in the Danvers State Hospital, an asylum in my hometown that was a Gothic terror, all spires and gargoyles. I knew it well; when my friends and I were teenagers we used to eat mescalin and sneak in at night to scare the shit out of ourselves.
He checked himself out of Danvers State after six weeks and told me he was doing research for a play. He seemed normal as sunshine, at least to me.
My grandmother eventually went into a nursing home and Mal would sleep in a chair in her room during the day. When they reno'd the nursing home and had to move her he was found living in the construction trailer. When she died he needed help and my mother and uncles wouldn't help him. Granted, he was so far off the grid it took chance to find him. Once when I was up there visiting from NY my mother and I drove around Salem looking everywhere, without luck.
I started Googling him, trying to find him. There'd be occasional sightings in Salem -- he'd be seen rolling up Essex Street or somewhere in Salem center. Supposedly he looked okay, like he was staying somewhere.
There was a rumor he had a girlfriend and lived with her.
The next few years my mother got sick, I started going up there a lot, she got sicker and in 2010 died. Shortly after, I resumed looking for him online, then started looking online in the local Salem papers. He was once donned the 'Poet of Salem' and maybe he'd be donned something else in print. Over the next couple of months I kept searching, and then I found a letter to the editor of the Salem News. It was signed Malcolm Miller:
February 28, 2011
To the Editor:
Salem's new motto, "still making history," is brilliantly puzzling. Opening a new yarn shop or restaurant is not exactly making history. While tourism dollars exist, so do people's sense of the mystery of being alive moment by moment without having to "make history."
Malcolm Miller Salem
There he was! I still couldn't find an address for him, but every few months there'd be a new letter published. It's how I tracked him. A few favorites:
February 20, 2013
To the Editor:
Is there anything sadder than talk shows? Is there anything more revealing of the banality of opinions? Silence, you are an improvement.
Malcolm Miller Salem
March 29, 2013
To the Editor:
Despite the media trying like anything to declare a great reckoning and powerful moment in church history, the truth is somewhat different and intrudes awkwardly as we pass closed churches. We have come to a historical crossroad at which the presence of God will rise in a new, greater way or disappear forever. The official church is not as alive as the sunlight tingling the late-winter air with gold. The poetry of being alive has won out over doctrine.
Malcolm Miller Salem
His letters also started showing up in the Jewish Journal, otherwise known as 'Your Community Newspaper.' My favorite of all, dated January 30, 2014:
MY COMMUNITY NEWSPAPER?
I have read the entire January 16 edition of the Journal and found no mention of me. Something is wrong. Please correct this shortcoming.
I got into a bi-monthly rhythm where I'd look for him and his letters. Reading his words I could hear his voice; he was as alive on the page as he had been in the flesh. He had such an influence on me; I'd be so excited to find a letter. I was looking for a clue to where he might be, I so wanted to see him. In November I did my usual search and instead I found his obituary. He had died in September.
Stunned, shocked - I was sure I'd see him again. Malcolm was invulnerable, to the world around him, to poverty, to what I imagined was a lack of love. I always thought Sandra dying made him eternally restless. He never spoke of it. I had hoped to sit with him with my own presence fully emerged, to be with Mal as Mal was, as I was. The enormity of his death also drove home that he was the last of my mother's immediate family. Now they were all gone.
A memorial was happening a few days after I found his obit, and I wasn't able to go. A week later I looked online for any record of it and found something written by a retired English professor from Salem State College, Rod Kessler. I found an address for him and reached out. Rod wrote back and we started writing.
Mal had been self-publishing books - hand writing poems and making copies of them, then dropping them off in mail slots to English professors at a local community college. He'd include a note: if you like the poems, please send $5 to a PO Box. Rod was one of the professors. He didn't read the poems, but over the years sent $5 whenever he received a booklet. Then Mal wrote a note to all that he was 80 (he was 83 when he died) and the booklet of poems they were receiving may be his last.
This spurred Rod to read them and when he did he was impressed. He started reading all of them, then asked Mal to come and speak at the college. Mal wouldn't, citing his health, but I imagine Mal wouldn't do this anyway. Rod visited him once, I believe they stayed in touch via letters, and then Rod got the call that Mal was found dead by his Meals on Wheels person. Rod was one of his emergency contacts.
Mal's other emergency contact, Peter Urkowitz, worked in the library at Salem State. Mal lived in public housing the last few years of his life (the same housing my grandmother lived in), but I learned that prior to this Mal would write all night in a coffee shop, then sleep in the library at Salem State. When Mal burned out his typewriter and couldn't afford a new one, Peter lent Mal his apartment every morning so Mal could go in and use his typewriter.
Two weeks ago there was a huge poetry festival in Salem and Rod wanted to do a panel on Malcolm. He asked me to come and speak, and I did. Joe and Ginger came with me and came to the panel, and it was so meaningful to see Mal celebrated, to hear people read his poetry, to see him loved. I don't know how he would have felt about it. Chances are he wouldn't have shown up.
Prior to the festival Joe and I and Ginger went to the cemetery and for the first time I saw my parents graves side by side. I have enough grief writing this one, so I'll save that story for another time.
A few of Mal's poems, from an anthology Rod Kessler put together for the panel:
a lousy soul has just chucked
a stupid bottle that once held
a soft drink onto a perfect
beautiful grass lawn
I am at first startled
and angered by this and almost
blame the bottle
then I grow aware it is also
has a certain beautiful
I gaze at it with pleasure
strangely I can’t retain now
my rage at the piggish lout
who threw the bottle
I should and I am unsteadied
by this whole experience
Your Life is Over, 2007, p. 12
a little old lady in Boston
town had her hand
bag torn away from her shoulder
the culprit made
off down back alleys
all she had in it was a small
the culprit out of curiosity
read it over and over
now he does more damage
as a preacher man
than he did on the streets
robbing and hitting
how about that
Poems, July 2012, p. 31
I saw a just married couple emerging
from a church on a beautiful sunny day
and friends threw rice
to ensure fertility or something
but the rice got in the groom's eye
he had to be rushed to the hospital
the honeymoon was called off
he was lucky not to lose the eye
now a year later the divorce is underway
I am plagued by thoughts
the rice did it
I want to find out
my curiosity is almost painful
how can I find out?
No Dust Can Gather on the Mouths of Women, 2009, p. 54
once it took meaning
to stop despair
now a tree will do
a flash of sun on water
at times nothing
is better than something
most people are not serious
instead of winning 8
straight why don't
the boston red sox
read my poetry
No Dust Can Gather on the Mouths of Women, 2009, p.6
there is a speck
of gold in all
but you have to spend
so much of your life
by grain to find it
the River of Muddied Water Bears Gold, 1994, p. 50
letter to the world
I am spending a day
of beautiful indolence
at home alone
the fan is whirring
I am in this heat bereft
of duds and duties
a beachcomber under a palm
tree who catches
a falling coconut
splits it neatly and drinks
the cool milky beverage
outside it is sun
struck and clammy
as I spend a day of beautiful
at my little sky
I have removed the smoke
detector from the ceiling
a criminally expensive
cigar is being patiently
destroyed by a gentleman
within me who writes poems and hopes
you are well
The Good Rain of Canada, 1994, p.30