Prose from Poetry Magazine

Losing Hayden

Sheila P. Donohue on Hayden Carruth.

Adrienne Rich was expecting him for lunch at noon, but there was no rushing Hayden. When Jen Richter and I arrived to collect him and his wife, Joe-Anne, at their hotel room, they were sitting with their feet up on the fancy couches, drinking, as though we had no place special to go. It’s Adrienne Rich, we reminded Hayden. You know — the Adrienne Rich.

Sit down, Joe-Anne said. Have a drink! We’ll be ready in a minute.

An hour later we set off from Palo Alto in Jen’s red Cabriolet convertible, scurrying across the northern California mountains to the coastal highway and down to Santa Cruz. Hayden, and by extension Jen’s little car, smelled of three things: damp tweed, stale tobacco, and Irish whisky. It was 11:45 am and we were very late. It would take us most of an hour to get to Santa Cruz, slightly less if  Jen could take the curves over the mountains with some finesse.

Sitting in the backseat next to Joe-Anne, I contemplated Hayden’s hair. It fanned out over the headrest in front of me like a bleached halo: white, with a little yellow. Not a real match for the reddish shade of  his mustache and eyebrows. Was his hair, in his youth, once a more reddish color too? Or was his facial hair only this rusty from tobacco smoke? Certainly the cigarette smoke was a constant, engulfing him every hour of every day. It was easy to imagine the extent to which his facial hair had absorbed the stain, as had the index and middle fingers of his right hand, each marked with a deep mustard ovoid where he gripped his cigarettes.

Remember that? When people smoked?

White-haired, red-haired: he looked crazy old, and also just plain crazy: the top of his head nearly bald; the rest of his hair growing amply, eyebrows sprouting exuberant sprongs, beard so bushy it concealed his mouth, the hair on his head growing so long and shaggy that it reached nearly to his shoulders, puffing up around his head and over his ears, eternally tousled, a halo, a mane, a cotton swab. 
I peered closer. Underneath its layers, I could now see, some remnant black lurked. So the hair was never red.

When you looked at Hayden dead-on you saw first that wild hair. Next, his peering eyes, gray-blue, cloudy with cataracts, nearly 
disappearing behind those magnificent eyebrows and the deep crinkles that erupted whenever he giggled, which, surprisingly, was often, given how fierce he at first seemed. Hayden’s habit as it turned out, in addition to the cigarettes, was telling tales — then instantly laughing at them as hard as anyone, or even if no one else laughed. He told these tales in public, in crowds, among friends; told them, apparently, whenever he felt anxious, or shy, or disgruntled, or amused.

For several days, Hayden had been the guest of the Stegner Fellowship program at Stanford University — three days of continuous 
socializing, meeting people who brought with them an expectation that he would make articulate and observable in some meaningful way the solitary activity of writing poetry. This cannot be an easy thing for anyone to do, especially for a man who for a period of years had been severely agoraphobic, “tormented by a fear of people and open spaces,” as William Grimes wrote in Hayden’s New York Times obituary: unable even to leave his own house, much less interact with strangers. With Hayden, long moments of self-conscious silence, during which he seemed entirely unable to participate in the ongoing conversation, would be suddenly broken by the recounting of one of these tales, or by sudden blurts of rhyme, perhaps an old Billie Holiday song, altered to suit his ear, seemingly apropos of nothing but some dialogue taking place within his head — Our love is a faucet, he chanted in the hotel lobby,

It’s either off or on.
Just when I think it’s on,
Baby, it’s off and gone.

Together with his bed-rumpled appearance, this survivalist behavior could be off-putting. One could see it strike a mild alarm in the eyes of people who maybe hadn’t yet read his poems or maybe had read them but failed to get them. The sponsors of the event, generous though they were, had looked at Hayden when they first met him as though they’d unwittingly invited in Dr. Strangelove, gleefully riding his nuclear missile to their mutual devastation. “‘I wish I could shimmy like my sister Kate,’” Hayden told us. “‘She shakes it like jelly on a plate.’”

The main event had taken place the previous evening, a reading of his poems that Hayden had given before a packed house, and this day, heading down to Adrienne Rich’s for lunch, would be his last in town. His relief was evident. This was why he had needed to lounge about the hotel room for a while, feeling his freedom, re-gathering his strength; it didn’t mean he didn’t want to see Adrienne. Hayden and Adrienne, we had learned, were old friends — I mean old friends. She was someone with whom he could be utterly relaxed. She would forgive him his tardiness. For although Hayden and his wife both clearly liked Jen and me, we were new acquaintances. We were his minders.

Our initial duty had been to take Hayden and Joe-Anne out for a fancy meal on their first evening in town. At the table, before he even sat down, Hayden shifted his water glass over to Joe-Anne, saying, “You know I don’t drink this stuff.”

He meant the water. “He says fish fuck in it,” Joe-Anne explained.

Joe-Anne was considerably younger than Hayden, with striking, long red hair, and her devotion — and his to her — was absolute. It is difficult to imagine how he would have functioned without her. On the day of  his public reading, he had set out in the morning on a long walk and quickly become lost, wandering “fourteen miles,” as he described it, although how he eventually found his way home to the campus hotel he wasn’t sure. Along the way he’d asked for help, and this was where the tale began to sound epically Hayden: he’d asked everyone where the Faculty Club was, a place unknown to most citizens of Silicon Valley. In his baggy, stained trousers and limp cotton shirt, his long hair uncombed, a cigarette pinched between his fingers, he was an unlikely figure on the streets of one of the most expensive towns in the country. I have to read my poems, he told strangers. Where is the Faculty Club? The man at the information desk in the mall blinked rapidly and shook his head. On the street, several people refused to answer him, edging nervously away, until finally, on the Stanford Campus itself, a policeman told him, “You don’t belong here.” In the range of creatures that Hayden might apparently be, no one had guessed what they were actually dealing with.

“Poems,” Hayden said that night, “are mushrooms cropping up under a leaf, growing on that log. Some are very tasty and some could kill you.”

Over the three days of his visit, Jen and I had gradually felt Hayden lower his invisible force field until he seemed actually glad to see us. If this meant hanging out in his hotel room and being late for Adrienne Rich, well, so be it. And it was hard to be worried when it was such a gorgeous drive down the coast. Jen showed finesse, and we made good time. When the car pulled up at the curb, Jen beeped the horn at Hayden’s request and soon the front door swung open to show the famous woman we had seen photos of, whose poems we had cut our teeth on, but never imagined we would meet. She smiled and waved, betraying no annoyance whatsoever that Hayden was late.

We were meant just to be dropping Hayden and Joe-Anne off, but Adrienne insisted we join them for the meal. She wouldn’t let us refuse and we didn’t try too hard. After lunch, since smoking was not allowed inside the house, Hayden wandered off into Adrienne’s backyard to have a cigarette or two while we cleared the table. We 
offered to wash the dishes. We tried very hard to wash Adrienne Rich’s dishes, but she refused our help, pretended she would save them for later, and shooed us outside to find Hayden before he could get himself lost. As we slipped out the kitchen’s glass door, she was standing at the sink, washing the dishes.

Adrienne’s back porch was much larger than it had at first 
appeared: it only began outside the kitchen door and then, after a corner, wrapped around the entire back of the house as though designed for large parties around a pool. Yet we could not imagine Adrienne hosting a pool party. Then we rounded the corner and came upon not cabanas and wicker lounges, but a hundred or so individual 
assorted cacti in numerous pots, each distinctly individual from spine to ceramic base, all arranged as though with some bird’s-eye design in mind — careful still-lives with various porous bits of wood and stones of some interest, including one with a deep fossilized 
impression of a fern.
Of  Hayden there was no sign.

“He’ll be lost again,” Joe-Anne said, with mild concern.

We headed out of the yard and down the scrub-lined street, the hot sun bearing down from a textureless blue sky, and it was some time before we finally spotted him, his back to us as he shuffled along. He looked as though he might just keep on going, wherever the road went, apparently aimless, yet dogged, and therefore with some purpose, like the hitching rhythm of my favorite Hayden poem —

Hey, hey, daddio,
Them old jeans is
Going to go!
Rose Marie done put in a new
Valve cover gasket,
Them jeans good for a whole nother
10,000 mile    ...
— From November Jeans Song

Jen shouted, “Hey, good-looking!” and Hayden spun toward us, delight on his face, his cigarette suspended in his fingers and perched near the corner of his mouth.
I look back upon the scene from these many years later at the breathing image of the man not so long gone, walking down the street near the home of  another poet, also now gone: I might imagine I see King George, or a homeless vagrant, or Walt Whitman, shuffling past the neat adobe ranches of that quiet suburb in northern California. The sun was hot. The sky, blue. We stepped up to collect Hayden Carruth, laughing in the street, and returned him to Adrienne, who was waiting in her house with tea.

How it is never the same
but always changing. How
sometimes nevertheless
you recognize it. How you
see it from your window
plunging down, flattening
across the frozen lawn,
then rising in a wild
swirl and it’s gone    ...
— From Woodsmoke at 70

Originally Published: March 1st, 2013

Sheila P. Donohue’s work has been published widely in journals. Her lyric essay “Half-Life” appeared in the 2012 double-issue of Seneca Review. She lives in Evanston, IL, and teaches creative writing at Northwestern University.

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In
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  1. March 7, 2013
     Jacqueline Winter Thomas

    I was delighted to find this story in the March edition.
    Carruth is, I think, one of the best, most diverse, and
    most undervalued American contemporary poets. How
    wonderful to get a very real, visceral image of him. Thank

  2. March 10, 2013
     Philp Nast

    Years before I met Hayden Carruth in Syracuse in the early 90s, I read his essay “The Formal Idea of Jazz.” Jazz interrupted by talk or noise irritated him. It irritates me. I knew we had that much in common as we sat, one night, in a relatively quiet corner at a boisterous party, drinking, exchanging a few words, listening to a jazz CD played in another room. Some riff made him smile and he tried to talk about it, but I didn’t hear it, couldn’t filter the jazz from the noise. The moment was lost. He grew quiet.

    A small thing. One moment. One shared observation. I regret the loss. An appreciation of regret and its role in thought is something else I know we shared.


    Do you hear that trumpet, he asked
    pointing a finger toward the room
    where jazz accompanied the din
    of partying writers. He wanted

    to say something about the horn
    or the man who blew it, but I,
    impatient with noise and red wine,
    shook my head and watched his smile fade.

    He sank back into the solo.
    Nothing irritated me more
    than trying to winnow music
    from the cluck and gabble of talk,

    a social shortcoming I knew we shared,
    having read his complaint that jazz
    should be listened to, not talked over.
    But this was a friend’s house and these

    his peers and students, and he bore
    his frustration better than I—
    who missed a chance and wonders still
    what it was he was about to say.

  3. February 20, 2015

    I was late to appreciate Carruth. He is a genuine human being, full range of what it means to be experience life. Whether hiding out in an attic for five years or trying to teach in upstate NY, he was always striving to capture the rhythms of life. Great poet.