Heaven's Commonplace: Hoc Opus, Hic Labor Est
Poetry lives by faith alone, and the work of poetry is always only trust.
Memories of Robert Creeley are a blessed common ground and meeting place for several generations of American poets—my own especially, as we were fortunate enough to know him first as a teacher and then as a friend. There is a forward congruence to all these memories, an echoic singularity of chastening mischiefs and tender prescience. I step forward here in remembrance now, mindful of one of Bob’s most perfect poems, “Heroes,” the piece in which the Cumaean Sibyl’s injunction to Aeneas at the threshold of the afterlife—“hoc opus, hic labor est”—chastens and teases language into filial, eternal return.
In the fall of 1977, I began my graduate studies at the University of Buffalo. On the opening day of term, I walked into Samuel Clemens Hall a little daunted by the prospect of my first class—Modern Poetry with Professor Robert Creeley. I entered the room to find my new classmates seated very quietly, but quietly excited too. We fiddled with the little aluminum foil ashtrays which, in those days, still shone in the top right corner of every desk. When Professor Creeley entered, wearing a fatigue jacket and broad-brimmed hat, his face had a look of surprise and urgency, as though he had just heard some kind of bulletin over the airwaves. He sat on his desk, tilted his head a little and said, “It’s like shark repellent.” He went on to explain how, in the early days of WWII, the Naval Air Corps had been deeply troubled by the number of planes lost in the Pacific. Fear of shark-infested waters was determined to be a prime cause of pilot error and so, in very short order, pilots were issued newly-devised canisters of shark repellent to be carried on their belts. At this point Creeley laughed a bit, going on to say that the Navy knew the repellent to be ineffective, and yet the stuff went on to have its desired effect. Unafraid, pilots flew with greater confidence and more success. “It’s the same with modern poetry.” Then Creeley left the room, leaving us with a lesson I’ve been decades learning. Poetry lives by faith alone, and the work of poetry is always only trust. The least dogmatic poet I ever knew left it there. And so we began.
In 1986, I was an assistant professor in Denver. As ever with the untenured, I was eager to please, to serve, and to prove my mettle. When the public library launched a very posh poetry reading series, I helped to arrange Creeley’s visit and to compose the program notes that patrons of the library would find on their front row seats. A few hours before the event there was time for Bob and me to have a quiet dinner. We went to a good place, a Russian restaurant on Larimer Street. Perhaps it was the greeny, home-distilled dill vodka there, or perhaps it was simply the respite from earnest company—in any case, our mood was happy, even a bit silly. I remember us laughing as the butter squirted out of Bob’s chicken Kiev all over my tie, and then laughing again as my entrée returned the favor. We spoke a lot about Slater Brown, then in his ninetieth year and still enjoying pastries in the cafes of Gloucester and Rockport. Friendship was always Creeley’s favorite subject, and of Slater Brown, dear friend of E.E. Cummings and of Hart Crane, he spoke warmly and tenderly indeed. (N.B.: Creeley’s August 14, 1951 letter to Charles Olson remains, to my mind, the best and most useful close reading of Hart Crane’s poetry ever done.) After dinner, we walked to the library and I prepared myself to be public, ceremonious, and posh. Just as we reached the front doors and the well-dressed ticket takers, a beat-up school bus screeched behind us and I heard many voices calling, “Bob, hey Bob, we made it!” Old friends, old students, old cohorts from the canyons around Boulder. Bob waited for them to park and to join us—there must have been nearly thirty folks in that bus. And then he led them in, pointing to his sudden entourage and saying to the perplexed ticket-takers, “They’re with me.”
After a busy week of readings and lectures—at the University of Utah, the Decker Lake Reformatory (Bob always had an amazing, calming rapport with angry young men) and the Jewel Box Theater on Flamingo in Las Vegas—Creeley came to spend the weekend at our place in the Spring Mountains. The big issue of our household at the time was the imminence of our son Benjamin’s first official haircut. He was four years old, strong-willed then as now, and dead set against it. Bob, keen for peace and relaxation, took Ben aside. They conferred in whispers, and then Bob fetched a towel and scissors. After a very few minutes—no tears, no arguments—Ben was looking dapper and tidy. For several years afterwards, whenever the subject of a haircut would arise, Ben announced proudly: “Only Robert Creeley cuts my hair.”
During the spring of the Iraq invasion, I held the post of Coal Royalty Chair in Poetry at the University of Alabama. One of the perks of the job was the chance to invite a major contemporary poet to campus for a reading and colloquium. To no one’s surprise and everyone’s great pleasure, I invited Bob. His performance, to a packed house in a stately auditorium, was the best I’d ever seen him give. The audience, fretful and edgy from news of the war, had clearly arrived with great and urgent expectations. Bob didn’t let them down. He began with a soft-spoken recollection of his own wartime experience in Burma, describing scarifying scenes with characteristic understatement and self-deprecating tact. I could feel all the people around me—scholars and students and outsider artists come to Tuscaloosa from the piney woods—relax into trust, into pleasure. And then Bob read a series of poems about family life and commonplaces, and for an hour there was peace.
Afterwards, there was some sort of mix-up about his hotel, and so Bob came to spend the night in the guest room of the cottage near the Black Warrior River that came with my job. Next morning, after breakfast, I had one of the most serene hours of my entire life. Upstairs, there was a cluster of connected rooms I used for writing—three desks, five comfortable chairs and more than a dozen little windows looking out into trees already twined with blossoming wisteria. Bob and I lounged up there with our coffee. He caught up on his correspondence and read a while. I typed away at a long poem I’d begun some weeks before. Many birds sang. And then the phone rang. It was the president’s office from Brown University, calling for Bob. When he put down the receiver, he looked at me and said, “At my age, it’s strange to be starting a new job.” By the fall, he’d moved to Providence.
I never saw Bob again after Tuscaloosa, though we surely kept in touch. In late 2004 I had a bad case of the blues and spent a lot of time sheltering in one of my favorite books, Kilvert’s Diary: 1870–1879, by the English curate in a rural parish. One morning, I came to the following passage and could not resist the urge to e-mail it to my friend:
One bell did not ring loud enough to satisfy the people so they took an axe up to the bell and beat the bell with the axe till they beat it all to pieces.
Less than an hour later, Bob replied. His e-mail read: “Just back from visit to not one but two family cemeteries. Small world!” And he attached a new poem:
One bell wouldn’t ring loud enough.
So they beat the bell to hell, Max,
with an axe, show it who’s boss,
boss. Me, I dreamt I dwelt in
someplace one could relax
but I was wrong, wrong, wrong.
You got a song, man, sing it.
You got a bell, man, ring it.
Robert Creeley died in March of 2005. A few days later, our friend Forrest Gander wrote to me. He’d been putting Bob’s office at Brown into order and wanted me to know that the little poem “about Francis Kilvert and the bell” was the last that Bob had ever written. Hoc opus, hic labor est.
Born in the Bronx, Donald Revell received his PhD at SUNY Buffalo and is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, translations, and essays. His recent books include The English Boat (2018), Drought-Adapted Vine (2015), Tantivy (2012), and the prose work, Read Full Biography