Go mad. Commit suicide. There will be nothing left.
After you die or go mad.
But the calmness of poetry.
—from A Poem Without A Single Bird In It by Jack Spicer.
My wife, Mary Esther, is a devout Catholic who goes to Mass regularly even though she hates the patriarchy of the church. When she could walk without a cane, she would go to Mass at Arch Street, the noon Mass, and she would often see Jack Powers there, on his knees, his lips moving.
She really didn’t know Jack Powers. She did know that he was a spiritual man. But the demons. She couldn’t see the demons. I knew Jack Powers from T.T. The Bear’s place, where he hosted Stone Soup regularly. I started attending in 1994 every Monday night. I didn’t know he went to church regularly.
I didn’t know that Jack Powers, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s founded a free school on Beacon Hill and started free suppers for the elderly in the same neighborhood. I didn’t know that he taught Columbia Point Project kids remedial reading and started a food co-op there too.
In 1987, Jack Powers told the Boston Globe, and I quote, “I’m very solid on volunteerism because the extraordinary weight of problems that visits the modern industrial society can’t be met with dollars alone.”
I didn’t know that Jack Powers, on a cold winter night, would take off his coat and gloves and give them to a homeless person on the street.
I didn’t know that he often volunteered at the North End Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in earlier years. I know that he died there, a resident, of complications of dementia. I know that he ran poetry groups at McLean’s Hospital, where he sometimes was a patient.
I do know that he started Stone Soup Poetry Readings over 40 years ago and made everyone that I knew feel welcome there. I know that he was held in such high regard in the poetry community that poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, and Robert Bly, among others, came to read for him and the poets who read regularly at Stone Soup.
I know Jack Powers drank quite a bit. It can be said that he drank alcoholically. When I met him in ’94, he was already putting the drinks down his gullet like they were water.
People knew I was in recovery from heroin, which is just alcohol in powder form, and some of them asked me to talk to Jack about his drinking. I talked to Jack a number of times about the damage he was doing to himself and those who loved him.
The trouble with the disease of addiction/alcoholism is that denial is a big part of it. Jack couldn’t help it. He didn’t know how to get out. He tried. He went to AA. He went to the hospital for treatment. He went to church regularly.
I knew Jack through the poetry readings but I didn’t know the demons that walked through his mind and spirit. He prayed. This I know because my wife saw him, as I said, at Arch Street Church on a regular basis. When he was on his knees, lips moving, what prayers were uttered from his desperate, talented mouth? Is there a God that hears all our prayers and sometimes says, “NO”? I don’t know.
I’m a drug counselor now. Even with all the knowledge of the illness at my disposal, I still relapsed, a little over five years ago. I was lucky. I was able to get back into recovery.
Certainly Jack Powers was as good a man as I, maybe better. He’s accomplished more in the poetry world than I ever have. Jack really tried to stay sober. I know he did.
There are very few of us that don’t have one type of addiction or another. Some drugs, some money, some sex, some pornography, some comic books, some power, some food, etc. etc. etc.
Jack was a good talented man who dealt with inner demons and none of us will ever know their nature. When one is haunted by his or her own mind anything can happen. Jack was a blessing that touched so many lives, so many lives that are too numerous to count.
It didn’t matter what level your poetry was at Jack would sign you up to read and help you if you asked. He was there for so many. He was as non-judgmental as a man and a poet can be. There are many poets who are quick to judge others. This is no secret in the poetry world. I wish I could say that I was as nonjudgmental as Jack. I don’t know.
As Doug Holder of the Ibbetson Street Press said, quoting from the Boston Globe, “Boston is full of elite universities and institutions, often very exclusive, where if you don’t have an academic pedigree you’re out of the scene. What Jack did was bring poetry to the people. He published books and had a venue where all kinds of people came through. He opened it up in Boston, which was old and stodgy until Jack brought a populist flavor, a new flowering of poetry.”
Poet Gail Mazur, from the academic scene, said of Jack, “He wanted to gather everyone into the performance of poetry. In that way, he was a little ahead of his time.”
Jack Powers was so much more than a poet. He was a man who gave so much to the world, a good man who reached out to those who didn’t have. Jack wasn’t money rich, not by any means. But he was possessed by a wealth that more of us should strive for, more of us should emulate.
But he was possessed by demons too. In the end, the demons took away all the gifts he had. It wasn’t that Jack Powers didn’t ask for help. He asked for help in more ways than many of us will ever know.
Jack Powers is gone now but his legacy will live on. There is much that many of us knew about Jack, but when it came down to it, no one knew the nature of the ticking clock within him that took him down. Jack Powers died at the age of 73. It was a sudden, slow death. Like Neil Cassady, Jack couldn’t get off of the railroad tracks.
Marc D. Goldfinger is a formerly homeless vendor who is now housed. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org