[I wrote this on New Year’s Eve, 1980-81. I was recently divorced, feverishly writing poems & falling in love, and I was celebrating in the Brooklyn apartment of my first poetess. She said we should spend the time doing what we most wanted to be doing the rest of the year, and I wanted to tell her about this guy.
Later that year she encouraged me to send the poem to the National Federation of State Poetry Societies contest where it won the $1000 first prize.]
Tillman was a kid of nineteen
who always amazed us.
We lived in a long carton of upstairs rooms
with a small kitchen
of two hotplates and some chairs.
Tillman was a kid
who was going back to school
because he’d found some teachers
and he loved it all. Tillman looked
like a dark young god of woods and streams
and lived by pothead time.
We all met in one of the rooms
and passed the joints around,
talking of giant cats who purred as they ate you
and the silk-robed monks in their mountain temple
blowing long golden trumpets we thought were foghorns.
Tillman tried all the drugs with glorious curiosity
and I worried sometimes
but figured he was too holy to be hurt.
We spoke with passion for the whole glorious world
we danced through
with our beautiful friends. Tillman loved the world
and we all inhaled his joy
with the clear holy weed we had for that time
which exists no more in this world for me.
When I’d forgotten what it was like to be down
we moved out to various places
and went through hard times.
He took me in when I needed shelter
and I felt safety
sleeping in the same house
with Tillman’s goodness.
He was still trying drugs
and I warned him to be careful
but the world was too good to hurt him.
He was sorry for me in my sad cowardice
but remained my friend
while he lived his joy with beautiful new people.
He hugged me sometimes
and I thought I was queer for him
but he wouldn’t believe it;
he loved me anyway as we sat apart
watching ghostly night trees from his window.
The last time I saw Tillman
in his new place, making plans
for a beach party he didn’t invite me to
I was hurt, and thinking I was safer this way–
but I put that thought aside.
When I heard about the accident
I didn’t worry;
he was in a coma but I didn’t worry
because the man was indestructible
and when they told me
the funeral was today
I went back to my room
feeling much nothing
about a man we needed
who wasn’t available anymore
to grow on into a beautiful adult.
I still didn’t believe it
when I got his girl’s letter
about Tillman high on life
checking out the turkey farm
where two wild birds hung
out over the gate
as warning to their brothers.
“Gobble gobble” said the turkey
as Tillman seized it saying “Gobble gobble” to the turkey
and grasping it by the neck as Tillman would.
Omens hung about Tillman
and some visiting girl
thicker than slogans on a fool’s bumper
but Tillman was impatient
so they left early by a different route.
Tillman was sitting cozy
between his girl’s legs
when the car when off the cliff
and they all flew out.
The other girl died then
but Tillman lived
in a coma with one hand
that clutched for something
until he died; the funeral
was beautiful and they all cried
when the rabbi spoke of him.
I went to see her at her parents’ house
and saw her drawings from her visit home
to Northwest Coast Indians.
Grandparents and totem animals
looked out of her dark eyes
as she let me meet her parents.
A year later someone told me
she’d died of an overdose–
artistic symmetry in losses beyond price–
of stupid laws, indifferent lies,
the stunted fantasies
of the jailers and the scene-stealers
who left no roles big enough to hold them.
I treasured her letter
until it wore out in my pocket
and on a mountain cliff in Big Sur
I danced Tillman’s dance
while a beautiful hairy man
sat with his shy lady
playing their homemade drums
beneath the glorious yes sky
while I said “Tillman is here
beneath the glorious yes sky!”