Sunday, May 21, 2017

Soul Poet

(a short story)

by Mark Aikins

The famous poet lived three doors down from me long as I can remember. Gentle, meek, unassuming, smiling at life, Kaspar Salvador seemed born to capture souls with his pen.

The processes of his art--his genius--were little understood, I readily admit. But now, on the day of his burial, I take the time from some perhaps “more pressing” matters, to peruse my personal collection of his works.

Those elements of his style: his rhythms and rhymes, his bursts of sunlight and port holes into darkness, his bouts of melodrama and sprinklings of self-doubt--all the patches making up the quilt of his quality...what moderns would call Kaspar Salvador’s “voice,” have become the stuff of legend. The subject choice of his writing always focused all-but-exclusively on what he called “personal portraits” of people in his life. And, most remarkably--most oddly, in fact--each of those portraits, every solitary poem, was about someone he had outlived.

I ponder that mystery as I leaf through the booklets, the pamphlets, the clippings and the scraps of verse I have copied over the years as I’ve followed Salvador’s rise to world renown.

Here is a little piece about Charlie Gates, one of our mutual boyhood friends. Kaspar composed this at the age of seven and it was printed in the local paper at the time Charlie died of double pneumonia. The poem compares Charlie Gates to a leopard and an eagle and an iguana in various clever and surprising ways. It would still bring a smile to the face of the most jaded critic, but to my heart and mind, Charlie’s little soul was so carefully and lovingly packaged in that seven-lined masterpiece, I could even now imagine it breathing life back into his entombed remains.

Gertrude Castle was another early subject of his: a young, pretty sixth grade teacher Kaspar got to know far more intimately than others in her class. I recall the merciless teasing he got as the “teacher’s pet” and the “favor-hound” from his peers. He gave me a copy of her poem the year she left our school to get married. Ten years later he had it published, after her death in child birth. The editor of the magazine called it “extraordinary in its subtle audacity and charm.” I read it now with the scent of lavender and chalk dust in my mind, along with the clicking and swishing of Miss Castle’s willowy frame.

Kaspar had what must be described as a fascination for people, as if he were exploring, interpreting and enjoying them as both an observer and a participant in human life. This fascination extended well beyond those generally deemed “likeable.” I and others often warned him of the social and moral risks of pursuing certain ill-advised friendships. But, like Will Rogers, Kaspar seemed to “never meet a man (or woman) he didn’t like,” or, at least, seek to befriend.

“Stick” McNaughton is a case in point. Born Herman McNaughton, Jr., son of a local clergyman, “Stick” earned his nickname by growing unusually tall in grade school, and by wielding a heavy oak baton he kept cleverly concealed in his overalls. Classmates who made offhand remarks about his height, his name, or his boorish manner, would sooner or later feel his disfavor in the form of blows that raised painful and colorful welts while leaving no shattered bones behind. No amount of student, parental, or scholarly outcry could convince Reverend McNaughton that his son required correction.

By the time Stick finished school, the lad was a lost cause. Rumor had it that several teachers had offered him passing grades solely under threat of bodily harm, had they not complied with his demands. No one was much surprised when Stick shamed his family by opening a bookstore in town specializing in vile and pornographic materials. To all appearances, he reveled in his status as the most detested of men.

When Kaspar Salvador had the gall to invite Herman McNaughton, Jr. to a dinner party at a posh restaurant in a neighboring town, the other invitees--all prominent business owners--quietly declined to come. Herman haughtily arrived at the restaurant, ready to make a mockery of the occasion. But when he saw the meek little poet alone in the dining room, and himself the only guest, his heart was oddly broken. He and Kaspar ate and drank together, and talked far into the night.

The poem memorializing Stick McNaughton is one of Salvador’s most heart-rending and enigmatic works, plumbing the depths of the man’s spirit and flesh. Although the fire that claimed McNaughton’s life two years later was clearly accidental, it is highly ironic that the insurance settlement issuing from the disaster at Stick’s bookstore named his father’s church as the sole beneficiary.

Perhaps you are wondering about my own poetic portrait by this lover of people? As the world’s foremost authority on the life and work of Kaspar one who lived just down the lane from this genius and whose shadow daily crossed his path, is there, for me, a legacy to be treasured after he returns to dust and ashes?

This very question pricks my curiosity as I now close my desk and make my way past the old meetinghouse on this bright afternoon in May. A hand-lettered placard is tacked to the meeting-house door. It is an invitation from Salvador’s next of kin to enter the church hall and view some memorabilia of the dearly departed, including many yet-to-be-published materials of his. My interest is indeed piqued, and, it still lacking half and hour until the burial, I open the door and step in.

There is the familiar face, sporting the dark reddish mutton-chop sideburns and the fussily trimmed mustache. Depicted alongside various local and regional dignitaries, as well as notables such as Hemingway, Frost and Chesterton. And here are posted the poems that were gleaned fresh from his writer’s folio--each one a captured soul whose life had gone on ahead either to glory or to perdition...

...Jack Semple...Parker Jameson...Lois Robinson...Jeanette Baker...Mordecai Finch...Wanda Clay...but, wait! Those last three...they are still living, are they not? Three treasured souls that outlived the Master! But what of myself?

Alas, it is not to be. No, the postings have come to an end. The folio is empty and the inkwell is dry. I think of his long, fruitful, singular life--and of my own. I lived my life in such proximity to this man, this lover of souls, this ennobler of men. But never did I venture to know him...or, rather, to be known by him. By name, perhaps. By repute, certainly. By historical datum, profusely. But the doors between us, ever unlocked and unbarred and beckoning...those doors were never opened!

And here, by the graveside, in the hushed crowd of mourners and admirers, I stand with those bereft of Kaspar Salvador’s voice and perceptive pen, hearing only the haunting echo of another Lover of Souls: “I never knew you.”

Still, if Kaspar’s poems are to be believed, there are other lives, other worlds, other realities to be discovered beyond this one. Someday, somehow, in one of those faraway places, perhaps Salvador will make a poem out of me?


(1250 words)

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