for Robert Swearingen
Yesterday they handed me my friend’s ashes in a box too small for a cake, but big enough to hold a copy of his book, all the loose poems he left, a pen and his pocket flask. I was surprised at the weight of it—these were not like the ashes of the campfires we huddled around, white and weightless the next morning, disappearing at a touch or a breeze. This was like a box of sand, to remind me of the heft he commanded with his words and heart.
We called each other “flaco”, a team of scrawny brothers stepping out of the shadows for the occasional spotlight, more often laying low with a poem, or just a beer and a laugh. Bob spent a long time on the streets, starting over every time he woke up without his backpack, hundreds of poems washed away like silt in the river.
This last year had been tough because of the pandemic. We weren’t able to get together on Sundays anymore, the nursing home slammed shut to visitors. It wasn’t until he was hospitalized finally that I could be face to face again. On his last lucid night we watched Saturday night fights on the hospital TV and he sipped a milkshake Dona dropped off from Wendy’s.
I have his words and our memories, as close as my heart. Deep down in there I have said the big goodbye to him many times over the years—he came so close so often, so my peace with his passing is well rooted. Whenever I miss him I just close my eyes or open a page, and always with gratitude. He is my dear friend and a hell of a poet. As he himself once wrote, death is just a vacation from life. And this:
SUBURB: poem from Street Milk by Robert Swearingen (words and voice)
Mitch Rayes music