It’s hard to find a true friend, and harder still to find a true poet-friend. I’m still shaking my head that Craig Arnold had claimed that place so easily in only one evening. But he did. And then he was gone.
I bought Craig’s book, Shells, when I returned to New Orleans from Atlanta in 1999. I was stunned by the power of his poetry; here was someone who clearly had mastered his forms, then adapted them to his own purposes. And he was dark. And he juggled the fire with his bare hands.
Last December, I pulled Shells from my shelf and read it again. I liked it so much that I had to send a little note to that effect to him. We became “Facebook friends.” I didn’t know a thing about him, nor he about me.
It so happened that, this winter, Craig was invited to visit the workshop at Georgia State. When I heard this, I begged Beth Gylys to send him a weirdly experimental poem I’d told him about online. She suggested that I do the airport-run-and-swanning-around-to-lunch thing with him. As it turned out, he was coming by bus. We joked about the Greyhound time-warp effect and promised each other drinks afterwards. Workshop rolled around… no Craig. Folks were perplexed. About 15 minutes later, Craig popped in, apologizing for being late–but he made it in plenty of time to give generous and thoughtful readings of several poets’ work, mine included.
At the reading, he woke up the evening club-chair slouchers with memorized and well-delivered work. He began to shed little bits of himself even then: first his black-and-white kaffiyah, then page after page of manuscript as he read from each and tossed it into the air. It was as if he were saying, “Plenty more where this came from.” And it was all good. And he had the goods. And he was generous in sharing them. I didn’t take any photos during the reading because I felt sure we would see each other again.
Afterwards, we all headed to Manuel’s Tavern, the local press-pol watering hole, and commandeered an ever-growing series of tables in the back room. Joining Craig were an old pal and his wife.
Craig made the rounds, speaking to everyone in the friendliest and most genuine way–or, speaking with them, I should say–something too few visiting poets do. He settled in with a glass of whiskey, and we got to talking. And talking.
We swapped tales from our travels: his hikes in Guatemala, mine in the Galapagos; his to Italy, mine to Quito. I told him about the Bahamian Coast Guard, armed with machine guns, boarding our chartered sailboats during the Mariel and Haitian exoduses.
He talked about Rebecca; I talked about La R. and her own travels: Ethiopia during the war; almost getting shot after mistaking the Berlin Wall for a cemetery; slipping away from minders in Paris and Rome so that she could see the cities. I told him about a longtime desire to go to the Medellin Poetry Festival; he’d been. We talked about going. I confessed my desire to win a Fulbright somewhere, anywhere, but especially Latin America; he said we should talk about that sometime, too. And he praised Italy some more, and was looking forward to meeting La R. sometime.
We talked about Shahid Ali, the only other poet with whom I’d felt this kind of kinship. About the cryptic message he wanted me to convey to CNN that “something big” was going to happen, but that he couldn’t say what. And the hindsight of 9/11. And about Shahid’s generosity of spirit, his intensity of duende, which led to duende itself, and back to Shahid’s cooking, and how much we missed him.
He quoted a line from Shahid’s poem:
“Have you anything to declare that might be dangerous for the other passengers?”/ “Only my heart.” And we laughed because that was Shahid.
He talked about his pending trip to Japan, that he was writing a book on volcanoes. I told him that I had a similar project underway for my dissertation, but that it involved water.
I called home three times to say I’d be leaving soon. Not to worry.
And in between, I shot a couple of photos of those gathered in this amazing spirit of kinship and humanity.
Finally, it was 1 a.m. and I had a long way to go. We promised to get together as soon as he got back from Japan and talk about all this some more. And then he signed my copies of his books, bridging the infinite white space across two title pages wih Shahid’s words, and his own: “With fond memories of Shahid, and hopes for a long future friendship. Thanks for listening. And listening. Peace, love, boots.”
I’m not terribly superstitious, but I do believe in signs. Sometimes, things burst. For no apparent reason. The day Craig would have gone missing, the string of my little shell bracelet broke, exploding a shower of shells across the bedroom floor. I got on my hands and knees and fumbled through the mountain of laundry, in the darkness under the bed, collecting them all for safekeeping, planning to string them back together.
The next day, I heard Craig was missing.
I slipped one of the shells into my watchpocket every day after that. I fired off letters to various Congressional and diplomatic types. I harangued everyone I could think of at CNN. I sent money to the search fund. I even called the White House that first day and asked them to help: “I know it’s not Pakistan. But he’s an incredibly important poet, one of our greatest living poets, who’s extremely well-loved by the American poetry community. and we really need your help in finding him.”
All the poets I know and many more I don’t frantically did all they could to bring pressure to bear on finding Craig.
The search was extended. And extended.And I knew that he knew how to find water, how to make a fire, how to splint his own leg. And I believed he would come back.
Days passed. Everyone tried everything they could think of to help. The Find Craig Arnold page became a world of its own.
On an off-chance, I sent a text message to his non-working phone:
If u get this txt any sign back searchers looking all send love hang on Craig
And a few days ago, a full rainbow, the biggest, most intense one I’ve ever seen, bridged itself across the twilight sky above our house. I hoped it was a good sign. I hoped.
When 1SRG found his trail, and knew for sure that it was his trail, I felt as if we would get him back alive.
Last night, after midnight, I checked in again. And there was Rebecca’s e-mail.
Maybe the rainbow was Craig. Some manifestation of his energy, his promise. Maybe he got here late, but he did say he’d drop by after Japan. Maybe that was him saying goodbye.
Because I’m a poet, I have to believe in signs. I need to know that there’s someone else out there who gets that part of me which only another poet can get.
But last night, inside, I was falling, falling.
And I’m not by any means the only one.