Intro to Elegy:
Imagine my surprise when I opened a submission from Max Heinegg and began reading his work and came upon his poem “Elegy for J.B.” Why? Well, read on. I knew Max briefly, as a high school student, in the late 80’s, as he was a year behind my youngest son in school. As my sons are thirteen months apart, they had many of the same friends including Max. Of those J.B. (Jeff Bubb) was the one who could safely be called, “a personality”. To adequately describe his brief life and that personality, would take pages. Many pages. Maybe, a book. I tried my best to do justice to his life in an elegy following his tragic death as part of a group of Japanese climbers, on a mountain in The Himalayas in 1997. Why Japanese climbers you might ask? Well, rather than explain the circumstances, read the poem.
We had received the news in a phone call from Jeff’s dad, very early on a morning we were leaving for a vacation that we had ferry reservations for, three states away. It would have been hell to reschedule in the height of tourist season so we proceeded with our plans to go away. There would be no service, in the immediate future, as there was no workable way to get his remains back from Nepal. The advice was, to cremate the body, and eventually, a process would be worked out to get him home. A memorial service would be held later, at the local Unitarian church, where the boys had met in a youth group. We called our sons and they were both shattered. Obviously, Max was, as well, or else there would not be this poem, eighteen years later, expressing his grief. Even if I had not known the subject of the poem, I would have taken the piece. That I had known him, made it that much more immediate. I proposed to Max that I would combine our two, very different, elegies to Jeff as a feature for this issue and he agreed.
I read my poem, not long after it was written, at the Omega Institute at a workshop I was taking with Galway Kinnell. The reaction, from the full assembly of all the ongoing workshops, was gratifying. People seemed sincerely moved and one lady remarked, “I hope that wasn’t one of yours.” And I said, “No. But it felt as if it were.” I still feel that way today. I am quite sure Max feels he lost a brother as much as I felt I had lost a son. Two elegies for Jeff. For his parents, Ian and Sue, and his sister, Kerry.
for J. B.
Love has the keenest memory,
each aspect of life lived is kept whole there.
It remembers the streets
where the young made promises and boasts
in the same breath.
It remembers backyards where they practiced strength
and auditioned courage,
and mountains where our wealth of luck was spent.
Those of us who grew up inside the home you made
Laughing, talking, listening,
arguing, gaming, ripening,
and with that swell
fell from many low trees.
There is nothing I can say that will protect me
or keep the love I am learning safe.
Words are balm, not armor,
so this is a song to remember love by
but one that cannot return the loved one to us.
The mountains are beyond us.
The heights he tasted, we knew ourselves incapable of
what he must have known there,
what changed sky, what altered air,
the horizon slippery as heaven.
Their beauty is painful, and our eyes
cannot contain it.
Now when I think of him, I think of you
and all of us. He leaves us
to our own pain, our own ascent,
and we who would have had the heart to go,
Max Heinegg is an English teacher, singer songwriter, and journalist who lives in Medford, MA with his wife and two daughters. His music can be heard at www.maxheinegg.com
Man's Fate: A Requiem for Jeffrey, Killed in
an Avalanche, Broad Peak, June 16, 1997,
"It is very rare for a man to be able to
endure-how shall I say it-his condition,
his fate as a man." Andre Malraux
His life was just beginning at 26,
the only American with a team of Japanese
climbers on Broad Peak ascending
for the honor of the prefecture,
not, for some personal goal, although you knew,
somehow, it was more complicated than that.
Perhaps, though, it was no more complicated
than proving, once again, that he could do
what no one said he could, to beat impossible
odds only he could truly perceive and overcome.
This was the same spirit, that identical will,
that made him teach in Harlem, the only white
boy around for miles, earning respect the hard
way, facing up to facts."It wasn't so bad
once you established that you weren't afraid
and you weren't going to take any shit."
The implication was, that he was afraid
but he wasn't going to show anyone
and that they were real sorry to see him go.
This same spirit helped him learn conversational
French, from scratch, in France, and, learn it
well enough to tutor French children, after
bullshitting his way into a nanny job, he had
no business taking or succeeding at.
And the implication was, they were real sorry to
see him go.
So when he left for Japan, with his college girlfriend,
it seemed almost inevitable that he would
overcome the odds of cultural ostracism,
and stay there on his own, after the end
of his relationship, and not only learn
conversational Japanese, but, formal speech,
as well, something no American ever does.
And the refining didn't end with his mind.
He built his scrawny, hundred pound weakling body,
into a finely defined machine, ran the Mt Fuji
Marathon in respectable time, training for a bigger,
test. And the implication was, no matter
how sorry anyone was to see him go, he was going
to go anyway.
He made the trip sound convincing, doable even; summiting the twelfth largest mountain
in the world, the one with the longest glacial
ridge anywhere. They were going to follow the
conservative Japanese climbing approach:
cautious, planned, focused, almost without risk.
Somehow the idea of hypoxia at 20,000 feet became
almost a joke, the way he would tell it, his will and
oxygen mask would overcome, just like always.
Everything you could think of was trained for,
plotted out in advance except the unknowable,
It would be better not to speak of the unknowable
and the unthinkable but this is Jeffrey's story,
the last poem of his life, his meeting with
what can never be foreseen. He left a copy
of the novel he was reading in his parent's home
back in Upstate New York. The title was Man's Fate,
and it was clearly marked where he had left off,
about half way through the book, far enough along
to realize that in the hopeless politics of
the Far East Malraux was speaking of, Man's Fate
was death. How right he was. How sad Jeffrey
wouldn't live to reach the end, to know just
how sad it would be.
Alan Catlin. 1997. Originally appeared in Main St. Rag, reprinted in Drunk and Disorderly, Selected Poems published by Pavement Sa