Poet's notebook: The good doctor

click to enlarge Poet's notebook: The good doctor - Jeanne Meinke
Jeanne Meinke
Poet's notebook: The good doctor

White coat and purple coat

a sleeve from both he sews.
That white is always stained with blood,
that purple by the rose.

In the popular imagination, a poet is someone who not only writes murkily while slouching in a garret, but often emerges as some combination of alcoholic suicidal bottom-pincher. But just as our poems are misread, so are our lives; and the closer you look at the lives of most poets, the more they look like everyone else’s.

These thoughts burbled up because of the recent death of Dannie Abse, a long-time friend, and the most decorated Welsh poet since Dylan Thomas. The thing about Dannie was that, except for being a marvelous poet, he was a good guy in the normal way.

In the fall of 1984, we were in London, where I was teaching a course on Contemporary English Poetry, and invited Dr. Abse to read to our class. I’d heard about Dannie, a Welsh writer living in London, because he was also a practicing doctor who often read to medical students in America, including those at USF. With a small budget to invite poets to talk, I called Dannie and discovered he lived nearby in Golders Green, seven stops up from Goodge Street (our nearest tube station; we loved the name).

He was a hit as soon as he walked in the door. Good-looking and sturdy, with an unruly shock of white hair, he connected easily with the students. His poems and stories made them laugh and cry; one poem, “In the Theatre,” in which a patient undergoing a brain operation suddenly begins howling “Leave my soul alone” over and over, actually made them gasp.

Our real friendship with Dannie and his wife Joan began a few nights later, when we met at his favorite restaurant, the Great Nepalese, a gem stuck in the middle of a dingy London street near Euston Station. We talked for hours over chicken Kashmiri and lamb tikka, and many glasses of wine. He was erudite, funny, generous, and a great sports fan, particularly of his beloved Cardiff Bluebirds, the Welsh soccer team.

In the years to come, we had many more memorable meetings. He looked at the world with fond skepticism, and liked the things that we all liked. Once, when Dannie was reading at Eckerd, two other distinguished poets, William Jay Smith and William Meredith, came to listen. When we offered to take them out to lunch, these sophisticated bards put their heads together and decided they wanted a good pizza. We have a fine photo of them in front of Vito & Michael’s Pizzeria, near the old Beach Theater.

We last saw Joan and Dannie in 2002, when we were visiting London with our colleague, Ken Keeton, and his wife Cece. Spontaneously, the Abses invited all of us over for what turned out to be a three-course lunch, complete with tea and coffee in their garden. Then they drove us to nearby Hampstead Heath, the beautiful park where John Keats walked and wrote before he went off to Italy to die. We wandered along the pathways, winding up at the Kenwood House and Museum, where Joan, a prominent art historian, told us, among many other things, that the marvelous Rembrandt painting there was “the most popular self-portrait in England.”

In 2005, in a tragedy still hard to grasp, a driver ran a stop sign and crashed into their car, killing Joan instantly. Much of his writing after that, completely without self-pity, has to do with loss and loneliness, interspersed with tales of their happy marriage. He had children and many friends, but lived in their lovely house alone, working on his poems 'til the day he died.

And phantom rose and blood most real

compose a hybrid style;
white coat and purple coat
few men can reconcile.

White coat and purple coat
can each be worn in turn
but in the white a man will freeze
and in the purple burn.

“White Coat, Purple Coat” is from Selected Poems by Dannie Abse (1923-2014), Sheep Meadow Press, NY, 2012    

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