Rest in Peace, Jack McCarthy - Infante's Inferno
Jan. 18th, 2013
12:03 am - Rest in Peace, Jack McCarthy
Jack McCarthy died today.
It's one of those sentences that doesn't quite make sense, as though so few words could carry the weight of what's missing from the world that was here just yesterday. It wasn't unexpected, of course. He's been in hospice for months. Still, to quote Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "It's always sudden."
I met Jack somewhere around 1994. I was running a poetry reading in Huntington Beach, Calif., and he had written to me about doing a reading while he was out visiting. This was before the Web took off in full force, so I really didn't have much to go on. Jack wasn't particularly well-known yet outside of New England. He sent me a cassette tape and a small stack of poems. The poems were riffs off of English addresses -- witty and kind of lovely, but not really the sort of thing we did at the Java Garden. The cassette was the slam stuff he would later become more well-known for, which would have sold the deal. The problem: My boom box had recently begun eating tapes, so I didn't risk playing it right away, so I had an image in my head of Jack as an aging, seemingly good-natured academic. But I liked the English address poems well enough, so I hedged my bets and booked him in a co-feature with D. Knowledge, whom was (at the time) a surer gamble. I needn't have worried. Jack was (of course) an instant hit, his shaggy dog stories with their sucker-punch endings absolutely slaying the audience. Moreover, I learned later that he and D. became pen pals for a spell. Jack was like that. You could put him in front of any room, and the audience would love him, and he'd make friends in the process.
Having realized just how wrong I'd been, I never again hesitated to put him on a stage. And when I wasn't running shows, I followed him like the Grateful Dead. Conveniently, I lived in SoCal when he visited there often, and later, I moved to Worcester while he was still living near Boston. After he moved to Washington, I was afraid I'd see him less frequently, but he returned often, and began teaching performance workshops at New England College in Henniker, N.H. -- a program Lea and I both have ties to, and which we visited frequently.
It was after his first reading at NEC -- to a packed house, I might add -- that I had one of my favorite conversations about Jack and his work, with poet and NEC professor Carol Frost. Carol is always an outspoken sort, and when we encountered him in the hall afterward, she was clearly wrestling with Jack's poetry.
I confided that Jack does a lot of things in his writing that normally drive me crazy, but when he does them, they all work. That's what makes him such an amazing artist. This answer seemed to satisfy Carol, but it also crystallized a lot for me, too. A lot of people treat poetry like it's a math problem, an equation to be solved. Jack put the lie to that in poem after poem. The "rules," such as they are, are there to help the writer coax nuance, meaning and emotion out of the poem. They're not an end unto themselves. And Jack could use any of the tools in the poet's toolbox with skill and precision -- his smaller lyrics, the ones that rarely made it to slams, are gorgeous -- but he always knew he didn't have to use any artifice if he didn't need to. Jack could just craft a story, and it would inevitably be a poem, would always be something a bit more than a jumble of sentences and sentiment. Because Jack was a real artist, and any arbitrary rules only applied when he found them convenient.
The last time I saw Jack was a little more than a year ago, in Los Angeles, when he was reading at Drums Inside Your Chest. In a show chock-full of bright talent, Jack shined the absolute brightest, dazzling the crowd which was largely unfamiliar with him. I remembered that feeling, what it was like to discover his work for the first time. I envied them.
Jack McCarthy is gone now, and although he gave the Reaper a good run for his money, it still doesn't seem possible. It doesn't seem yet as though I can divine the shape of the absence in his wake. He was one of the best people I ever knew, and I'm not entirely comfortable yet conceiving of a world without him in it.
"Shhh. It's all right.
Sleep will come,
when you're not looking.
Morning will come, and breakfast,
and things that should be easy
will be easy once more.
It's the Walk of Life.
You've walked it before
and you will walk it again.
Shhh now beloved."
-- from "The Walk of Life," Jack McCarthy