His name was Blackstone. He was our professor of poetry, of creative writing.
We called him Whetstone, because he sharpened our wits.
We had classes with him twice a week. Normally, he would come into the room sit on the corner of his desk and recite a poem usually not one of his own, someone that he’d been reading. Perhaps Auden or TS Elliot. Or something by Conrad Aiken or whoever was in vogue with him at the moment.
I remember especially one that began
Well, Sherry died last night…
We all believe it was true for the first few lines, but the rhythm and rhyme set us straight pretty quick.
On this particular morning he came in as usual and sat on the corner of his desk and began what we thought was a recitation.
“My house burned last night,”
he said. We had all been to his house the weekend before for a celebration. The house completely lighted by candles placed on the mantelpiece, on the drinks table, on end tables by the chairs and davenport. Maybe a hundred candles and a dozen students.
We wanted to know What is the occasion – your birthday? He told us that he was celebrating the fact that his wife had run off with the plumber. Then he proceeded to tell us that a plumber had more money than he could ever have as a poet and a college professor and “… in fact had a golden door knob on his house, I hope how you appreciate the Freudian significance of that?” He lifted his glass and said “Here’s to solitude and to the Muse.”
So this day when he sat on the corner of his desk, it was not a poem. We began to notice he was not so neat as normal. His suit was a little wrinkled, his hair disheveled and and there was a smudge on his cheek which seemed to be soot. What gave it all away was that he was not wearing socks, unforgivable for such a dapper guy.
After that first line, he passed out and sprawled across his desk. I ran next door to the room of Dr. Rogers with whom later in the day I would be taking a class in Robert Browning’s the yellow book or whatever it was called, that long poem he wrote in Florence based on the trial. Dr. Rogers was another poet not so distinguished perhaps, but older and with a reputation of sorts based on his thesis on Browning at Antioch. He was am elegant southern gentleman in a blue suit matching his eyes. He was also head of the English department.
With our assistance he got Dr. Blackstone out into the fresh air of the balcony over the garden below our classrooms. Somebody called the university medics and they took him on a stretcher down the steps. He was later treated for depression, and maybe a drying out?
The upshot was that in fact he had fallen asleep in his own living room with candles once again all over the room, drinking alone, mourning the loss of his wife. One of the curtains caught on fire. He woke up inhaling smoke as he was led outside by neighbors and, in a stupor, watched his home burn to the ground.
As far as I know he did in fact later write a poem that begins
My house burned last night…
but if so I never saw it.
I used to have a copy of his early book Call Back the Swallows, by Wings Press, a vanity publishing house. Other books I found listed on the internet – Delirium and Drums, Miracle of Flesh – but never handled either of them. There was yet another I never saw which I could imagine contains something about the incident, since it is dates only a few years later than the day he fainted in the classroom.
It is called Not as leaves are shaken.
April 10, 2016