In Memoriam,

Richard William Pearce, Lost Child

I first saw and heard Richard William Pearce reading his poetry at the Bryn Mawr Barnes & Noble early in 2002.  His beaming mother and sister were present, and Richard looked exuberant. I experienced both him and his work as novel, quirky, and arresting…told him so…asked for his telephone number…told him I might be able to get him a reading at a poetry club I belonged to.

“You want MY number?” he screeched peculiarly, grabbing and hurting my hand,  and I perceived that here was an enfant terrible ravenous for attention and love but likely to prove totally inept and insecure about being worthy of either.

My mind flashed to Francois Villon, the 15th-century French poet-maudit, semi-criminal, perhaps best known for his poem, “Where Are the Snows of Yesteryear?” Villon had lived his life in penury and pain, raging through his world toward violent oblivion.  I wondered whether Richard  - - bald, stocky, rough-looking  - -  was also an angry, bawdy and profane, anti-social rebel.

One of the poems he read that night, “63rd & Market,” struck me as being full of the raw energy and transparency that I thought I discerned in the man himself:

….I sit in this doorway
in the middle of this hot day this hot summer
wasting more ink on the pages of my notebook
and it really is a waste because today(again)
I feel like a nobody and who wants to read
The observations of a nobody?

….Of course there is no breeze today
only heat and sweat and the Artistic Tattoo Parlour
and the check cashing place
and the cell phone/beeper store
and the liquor store
and the pawn shop
and LA FREAK LOUNGE whose white-and-black sign depicts
a naked woman bathing
in a giant martini glass
(or maybe the woman is just that small?)

Poetry provided the natural focus of my relationship with Richard; in this arena he and I could help each other equally by providing a sounding board for our works-in- progress.  This we did frequently, at first.  True friendship with him was, however, difficult.  He tried always to be shocking.  As a lifelong insomniac, he could not ever be in sync with anyone else’s schedule.  He could not hold a job.  How he supported himself was always a mystery. He drank heavily. Social amenities were a mystery to him. He never seemed to pick up on subtle negative reactions to his behavior, alienating almost everyone with whom he came in contact.  He enjoyed practical jokes (frequently resulting in confrontations with both strangers and friends); boxing (at which he was almost dangerously skilled); and keeping pet white rats (which became a total obsession).

In fact, one of his most poignant love songs was actually addressed to his favorite rat:

When I’m sleeping near, you wake me up –
To bring you grapes from the kitchen, or bread,
Or to pour quiet water in your thirsty cup,
Or to whisper assurances you don’t lie in bed
All alone.  You awaken me, though there exists
A small chance I’m not dreaming frightful dreams –
Knowing, too, what a wonderful gift slumber is
To one restless as I.  When moonbeams
Display a calm on my face, don’t take me
From myself, don’t touch me, don’t wake me.

When we’re dead, both of us, at last, don’t call to me –
Nor stretch spirit-fingers from your tomb
To my own, to run through my beard; nor solace me
With new kinds of light.  My eyes, made for gloom,
Will be resting.  I worked for so long, so long
Uncreating all heavens men constructed.  Don’t
Attempt to persuade me to join their angel-throng.
If your voice echoes “Come,” I won’t, I won’t.
When we’re dead, I beg you, don’t take me
From stone and dirt, don’t want me, don’t wake me.

From us, his human friends, Richard demanded constant attention, emotional support, and advice - - subsequently excoriating the advice-giver and repudiating even the mildest suggestion. I soon found most of his behavior unacceptable.  Still, I tried to be available whenever I could. Not only did I pity him but I profited from his incisive editorial suggestions about my own poetry, about which he was totally encouraging.  I also believed in his talent.  But Richard’s need to vent and spew out his frustrations and difficulties eventually bankrupted my capacity to listen, and I began to sharply limit our contact, which hurt and angered him.  He seemed totally perplexed at my withdrawal, re-doubling his tales of woe.

He told me that he had gone to sleep clinics, desperate to learn to control his insomnia.  That he had admitted himself, for a time, to a mental institution.  Frankly, I was never certain when he was telling the truth, nor was I willing to pursue the issues he raised.

I simply considered Richard a lost child, an individual too desperate for me to associate with.     

The conversation that turned out to be our final communication was typical:  Richard telephoned me at 3:15 one morning to inform me that he was dying and that, if I wished, he would give his mother my address and telephone number so that she might inform me of his actual death date. He refused to answer my questions about the cause of this seemingly sudden new crisis.

I flared up in anger at his peremptory tone and manner.  My thoughts raced over his past bizarre behavior:  the Ancient Mariner-like conversations about the meaning of life, love, marriage, sexuality, politics, God; the awkward clutching way he hugged me whenever we met and parted; his gratuitous rage about what he conjured to be my belief that he was homosexual.  As he ranted on, I quietly hung up.

Later that week, I telephoned several times to no avail.  I assumed he was likely asleep, since my calls were made during “normal” hours, totally at variance with Richard’s schedule. In an untitled poem, Richard had described his terrible insomniac state of being, with its overtones of an exhausted sanity:

Around his eyes neon tubes glowing redly
…His scream-crying, perfected on afternoon roads, streaks down his beard,
…Suddenly he grows
so ancient and wise
that even God comes
to sit on his knees
and ask questions
about the world.

At four a.m., in the convenience store,
he goes mostly blind, says to himself 
Stay calm, be calm in your heart,
‘til vision returns and he knows
what to walk on.

Wearing a three-piece hair suit, insomnia folded crisply in his pockets,
He decides it’s time to purchase something to smoke and revisits the store.
His hands are shaking and the dollar bills
fall like leaves in autumn  onto the counter.

More and more, I deleted Richard from my consciousness.  My own life swirled on around me.  Richard had never been central to my functioning or well-being…. had been more drain than resource. I was happy not to receive any more of his alarming communications.

It’s difficult for me now to be clear about how much time had elapsed until that night in December 2004, when, inexplicably, some painful guilty reaction flared up within my psyche. After not having heard from him for so long, I suddenly desired news of this unhappy soul.  I telephoned Fred, Richard’s friend, a rather well-known local graphic artist, to whom Richard had introduced me (and two of whose water colors I had purchased from the Tyme Gallery in Havertown, where Richard lived).  Fred and his two sons had been friends of Richard’s for several years.

Imagine my chagrin when Fred informed me that Richard had killed himself, apparently soon after my final telephone conversation with him.

The story is vintage Richard, dramatic and mysterious.  After sending out to twelve male friends copies of a self-published collection of poems, titled “3:33 a.m.,” which contained a poem by the same title clearly prefiguring a violent death, Richard, days away from his 33rd birthday, in the middle of the night, drove his cheap and battered blue automobile( a Honda Civic, as I vaguely recall) somewhere up along route 202.  From his cell phone he telephoned the police to say that he was carrying in his car two guns with which he planned to commit suicide at 3:33 a.m.  He requested that the police “stop by” to make certain that no passersby would be inadvertently harmed.  He then drove to his anointed destination and, just as the police arrived, made good his word. 

Here is what Richard wrote in “Dead Sheep in Autumn,” which captures exactly my feeling as I listened to Fred:

He’s the sort of memory over which you don’t shed a tear,
But instead, just puzzle, feeling fascinated
And wishing you’d frequented the same smoky bars he did,
Realizing you weren’t in any fashion “connected” to him, yet aren’t apart.

Through whatever dusky glasses he wore,
he saw his grave before it was dug –
and all he did was down a shot
and chase it with a beer,
….And he HAS you –
standing over his stone,
mesmerized, motionless,
as if you were
stone yourself

According to Fred, when Richard’s mother was informed of the suicide, she said, “Thank God, it’s over and that no one else was harmed.”

I remonstrated with Fred for not having informed me of the death and funeral.  I made him promise to send me his copy of Richard’s book.  When I received the book, I was chilled to learn that Richard had included my name on the acknowledgements page for having helped him with his poetry.  In fact, there was one poem in the book, “For…” that felt as if it echoed my relationship with Richard, alluding to the times I had treated him to chicken dinners at Boston Market:

She gives the fox a chicken for dinner
Cut into pieces like a human would eat

If dinner is late, the wild dog simply
Approaches the house and barks for his meal…
Soon she descends the back stairs

When she works in the garden,
she’s met by the fox
who sits and watches
or runs back and forth
or sometimes sleeps not far away
tired from nights of
scouting the forest

Reading the poems was a tumultuous experience.  Although I had worked with him on several, many were new to me.  They were powerful and deeply disturbing. I regretted not being able to discuss them with Richard.  I made a copy of the book and returned Fred’s original.

One poem was unbound, simply inserted in the front of the book. “Green Hillsides in Winter,” an unusually tender cri de coeur, is, perhaps, Richard’s final letter to the world:

The dying man wonders what he should have told
His friends, his family, the strangers on the bus      
What he failed to tell them when he had a chance; thus
Dies with tales, observations, jokes maybe lackluster, but maybe gold.

….I have an unspoken memory of driving one lonely night
On a highway quite late, and seeing a hillside in wintertime          
Blanketed with snow; but under the moon as green as a lime…

….that green-glowing snow
Brought warmth to my hands, my ears; transformed each shivering breath
To a sigh of relief from the weather’s hold.  And now, as I approach my death,
I want to share that night, that scene, those feelings.  I want you all to know.

I thought a lot, then, about death, which so quickly truncates our desires and plans and opportunities.  My life has included the deaths of so many dear to me: brother, father, mother, husband, beloved friends. Now, Richard Pearce, himself, seemed  painfully dear, one of my ghosts.   

Days after learning of his death, life took a surprising and wonderful turn for me, one which would enable me to posthumously help this unhappy poet.  January 2005 marked the opening of my new poetry series at the Bala Cynwyd Library in Bala Cynwyd, PA, under my own banner, Friends of Poetry.  I began at once to organize a Memorial Reading of the poems in Richard’s book, as my way of giving him what every poet most desires:  the widest possible hearing of one’s words.  Did I think Richard’s tortured soul would forgive my past unwillingness to have shouldered responsibility for carrying him through his sleepless nights and punishing days?  The Memorial Reading was scheduled for April 25; I thought I would be able to assemble those who knew him and would speak of their experiences with him and his poetry.

I made many frustrating, ultimately futile attempts to find, invite, and include Richard’s family and friends. Several people I contacted didn’t know of his death but told me that they wanted to participate in the Memorial and would even bring some of Richard’s poems that had been somehow left in their possession.  Fred, his two sons, and other friends all professed themselves eager to read at the Memorial.

Every one of these individuals subsequently ignored all my telephone calls and written invitations.  None of them appeared on April 25 or ever contacted me again.

Nor was I able to locate Richard’s family despite questioning many people very likely to have known something about the family’s whereabouts.  I was finally compelled to give up.  In death, as in life, matters concerning Richard William Pearce were not “normal.” 

Had he simply driven away everyone whom he approached?

The task of compiling a rounded and representative sample of his work was challenging.  So much of it was obscene, shocking, opaque!  I managed to fashion a script of what was, for me, his best work.  The pattern inherent in his collection needed shaping and incisive cutting in order to highlight it for an audience as mixed in age, background, educational level, and sensibility as my Bala Cynwyd Library audiences were proving themselves to be.  I wanted people to hear the authentic and rough beautiful voice reverberating beneath the toughness and rage. I wanted them to know his compassion with the hapless and homeless of this earth, as exemplified by “The Haircut”:

Once the black cape is swung
Onto his front,
You can see neither
The holes in his jacket
Nor the stains on his favorite shirt,
Nor will you notice
That buttons are gone,
Nor how cheap his clothes are,
Nor how old   
You will not think
That his pants fit so poorly
They were received most certainly
Through charity.  You’re not likely to assume
That he has no employment,
No steady home
Nor influential companions.
You’ve no reason to wonder
When he ate last

I wanted people to hear the stunningly Romantic and wild passion of “Love Poem,” in which Richard proclaims:

Poems can no longer be written about the moon.

That glowing ball has been wrenched from the sky
and buried deep within the soil, packed down tight
and silent.

You are filling the night, instead, with moonless,
Starless black the way you fill my bed with shadow
the kind of shadow that fills invisible graves.

Who can say now what is sane, and what is not?
what is good, what is not?  You stole the oceans
and the fields; you killed the moon, the sands.

….O, the crashing senses, under this elaborate storm!
O, the ancient poem,
the meaty song of planets!

All are gurgled howls of the drowning
who arched up
into you.

Despite the horror of the suicide, I hoped that Richard, ever the prankster, consciously enjoyed ending his book with bloody poem/tales of his traumatic birth, playing with the notion that in our beginning is our end. He had frequently hinted to me that he was adopted, and the poems seemingly based on his birth and subsequent adoption may echo, in gruesome detail, his feelings and perceptions about his biological parents, as in “In Some Hospital in Chicago”:

At 3:33 A.M., a girl is screaming, or crying, or both….
And she’s pushing, pushing hard, as the doctor extracts this thing from her cunt….
The natural father of the thing, this night,
Does not know he’s a father,
Nor will he ever.
Come a few weeks, or slightly longer,
Papers are signed,      
The thing redefined
As the child of sterile Philadelphia parents, who grow teary-eyed, and broadly smile
At the thought of raising a son,
A normal, happy one.

Pathetic irony.

And so my initial vision of Richard as a figure resembling Francois Villon was a prescient one.  Villon, first sentenced to hanging on the public gallows, but officially exiled; then disappearing from the public record, mysteriously, at age 32.  Richard, self-exiled isolate; his own judge, jury, and executioner; mysteriously dead in the privacy of darkness at his own hands at age 33.

Truth IS stranger than fiction.

Many years ago, I heard a French song that I identify as referring to Francois Villon, although I have not been able to find or authenticate the text. Today, this song echoes in my mind as a proper epitaph for Richard: A condemned criminal stands on LA POTENCE (the gallows) in full view of his countrymen, assembled to see him hung.  He utters his final words to the crowd:                                    

Compagnons de misere         (Companions of misery: go tell my mother she’ll never see
Allez dire a ma mere              me again. I am a lost child.)
Qu’elle ne me reverra plus   
J’suis un enfant perdu.          

Richard’s own parting words to an adoptive mother, from the poem “In a Telepathic Message,” are, perhaps, more heartbreaking.  Richard, you may have the final word:

Mother, begin preparing yourself  - -
I’m not moving to where the weather’s warmer.  I lied.  I’m killing myself.

You’re receiving the words
Of, essentially, a ghost;

You have outlived me.
In a night, to a field,
I’ll bring (I brought) my SELF, not lost,
But never fully found, to see what depths of dark I can see;
To heal what can’t be healed.

You alone
Will be greeted by the singing of morning’s birds.

I’ll not be answering my telephone.

By Arlene Bernstein 

* A Note About the Author: In 2011, Arlene scuttled the frigid and strident North for the warm beauty of Southern Florida, where, during these "years that bring the philosophic mind,"  she writes, reads, and luxuriates, while her artist-husband creates his gorgeous watercolor mermaids.

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