EDITING ROD McKUEN
So we met, and, whatever it means at sixteen and twenty-one, we fell in love, and had a sweet, intense relationship on and off for a few years, and then, as often happens, we each married someone else. We saw each other a couple of times, and then there was no contact till the phone call came, a year ago, jolting me out of my widowhood sadness and putting a smile on my face and a sparkle in my eye for the first time in two years. Then began the several times daily e-mails and phone calls. And photos. Blinded by nostalgia, we each thought the other looked really wonderful, given our advanced ages. A visit to LA from Evanston was planned. We filled the days and nights of waiting with poems, songs, and two-hour phone calls. I lead a poetry workshop at The Workmen’s Circle. Bryce became an honorary member, and sent many poems. a bit sentimental, but the poetry group really liked them, as did I. My favorite was one which began, “I don’t think
I have ever seen anything so beautiful / as your auburn hair on a pale pillow…”
The reunion day arrived and a very thin, lame, and disheveled gentleman tottered down the airport ramp. Except for some sparse, uncombed white hair, he looked nothing like his photo. But he sounded like my old love, and I allowed him to hug and kiss me.
At the house, we began the task of re-acquaintance. We talked and talked into the night. I sang him the old folk songs I used to sing to him in front of the fireplace on snowy Chicago nights. It was very nice, even though I knew right away that we would never marry, or even live together. We would be, I think they call it now, “friends with benefits.” It was sweet. The visit was only for a week.
The next tryst occurred in Chicago, in March, where I had one gig, and the rest of the week free. We stayed in my hotel on the near north side and it was a wild week of concerts, plays, restaurants, visiting old friends and making love. (I can’t believe I just tossed that last one out!–don’t tell my listeners!)
When I returned to LA we continued to write, call and exchange poetry and songs. I continued to read his poems, as an out of town member of my group, Poetry Plus. One poem was a really nice one about Spring. It was a bit too long so I suggested that he omit the last two stanzas–that the poem really ended at the end of the fourth verse. I suggested a word change here and there. He told me I was a really good editor.
And then it was time for a really long visit, where we would find out just how compatible we really were.
We found out. I found out he was a less than perfect house guest. The word slob comes to mind. He was the only person I had ever met who could wash dishes and leave them dirtier than before. He was released from dishwashing. He also turned out to be a 83 year old teenager, deposited his clothes and shoes and everything else along the path from the front door to his room. I tried to overlook his faults, remembering the wise words of one of my dearest friends, John Owen-“When you love someone, all of their faults become idiosyncrasies!”
It wasn’t all bad. Bryce finally had the pleasure of visiting the poetry group in person, where he read his latest effort, The Poet’s Duty. Everyone really liked it, and several people asked for and were provided with signed copies. Bryce was very gratified at such a warm reception, his beaming face reflected his joy at their praise.
Five days before he returned home, we were sitting at the piano in the living room, singing tunes of the forties, when Bryce suddenly asked, “What are our plans for tonight, dear?” I replied, “We’re going to a concert at Villa Aurora with my friend Eric.”
“Nuts” said Bryce and when I asked why that response, he explained, “Well, we’ll be getting home really late and you’ll be all tired out!”
“Oh No,” I said, “You never, never, never talk to me like that! Never. At our age, sex is a gift, and never an obligation or duty!” And, after that, try as I might to let the incident go and loosen up, I could never let him touch me again! How’s that for giving a new dimension to the word “sensitive?”
Five days later, I drove Bryce to the airport, hugged him goodbye, and drove off chanting “Free at last, free at last…etc.”
We were always going to be friends. He was, after all, my very first dear boyfriend. But, at my request, the phone calls and emails decreased in frequency, and then one day, as I was looking over all the poems written by the members of my poetry group, something about Bryce’s poems just didn’t feel right. “They’re just too slick,” I said to myself. “They’re too sentimental,” I said to myself, “They’re too–too not Bryce,” I muttered and, with that, I gave in to my paranoia and Googled the first line of Bryce’s Springtime poem. The author’s name leapt out at me, plunging a knife deep into my suspicious soul. “ROD McKUEN.”
ROD McKUEN ??!!! Then I Googled the first line of sixteen other poems. All by Rod McKuen. (My least favorite poet! And I had actually EDITED him!) All except The Poet’s Duty which turned out to have been written by Kenneth Patchen, whom I love, and that was titled The Artist’s Duty.
I picked up the phone and dialed Bryce’s number. “You know that poem you wrote about Springtime?” I said, and he replied, “Of course, dear, do you need another copy?”
“Oh no” I chirped, cheerfully, “If I do, I’ll just go to Rod McKuen’s website!”
There was a beat of silence, then, “I don’t understand.”
“Oh, yes you do!” I said in my quietest, deadliest teacher voice, “You understand very well” I said, adding a word suggesting he frequently had carnal relations with his mother, “You understand very well indeed!”
There was another silence and then he said in a tiny voice, “I guess that means that we’re finished!”
“You got that right,” I agreed.
I felt sick, devastated, broken-hearted and furious. “Just tell me why you did it,” I begged and he replied, “I wanted to look good in your eyes.”
And here is where I raised my voice. “You stupid, pathetic plagiarist!” I screamed, “Don’t you know anything at all about love? It has noting to do with ‘looking good in someone’s eyes! When we fall in love, we fall in love with a tiny, tiny little amorphous part inside someone–some call it the soul, or essence, or whatever — and that little shapeless part has no talent–it can’t write poetry or sculpt or sing or do anything at all. Except — All it knows how to do is to love back. And you have never met that tiny wonderful little part either in someone else or in yourself.” I was too angry and devastated to say anything more. This man had been a lawyer for twenty years and a newspaper editor for ten years and had still done something really terrible. I wanted to tell him that had he just murdered someone in a crime of passion, I would probably have been able to forgive him, and visit him in prison, but plagiarism is really unforgivable.
I remember once how two really great children’s singer-songwriters had inadvertently used four lines from one of my recorded songs in a new song of theirs. When I pointed it out, they were really sorry and so embarrassed. Sometimes that happens…
But sixteen poem Rod McKuen!
The friendship can never be fixed. I miss the good parts. I miss talking to Bryce. We were young together. We had history.
Did anything good come from all this? Yes. Some poems and some songs. That’s what’s wonderful about being a songwriter– the relationship may end, but the song remains. Here’s one of the songs. Next time I promise to write a cheerful column. And don’t forget to make reservations to my new one-woman show, EDITING ROD McKUEN
He is my friend, I’ve known him forever,
He is my friend and always will be,
He is my friend, so comely and clever,
He is my friend, and precious to me.
Back when the world was younger and colder
I sang to him and he sang to me.
I was sixteen, and he, three years older
I’m seventy-eight now, and he’s eighty-three.
He is my friend; he tells me stories,
I tell him my thoughts, and my poetry,
Sometimes we’re together without any talking,
That is what friends do, so easily.
He is my friend, my dear friend for always,
We never will marry, we never will wed,
He is my friend, and I love to touch him,
So sometimes I invite him into my bed.
He is my friend and I’ve known him forever
He is my friend, and always will be,
He is my friend, so comely and clever
He is my friend, and precious to me.
Uncle Ruthie is the producer and host of HALFWAY DOWN THE STAIRS, heard every Saturday morning on KPFK Radio, 90.7 FM. She also teaches music at The Blind Children’s Center in Los Angeles. Ruthie does concerts for children, families and adults, as well as teacher workshops. She teaches beginning piano, and especially welcomes students with special needs. She can be reached at 310-838-8133, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.