I met Etheridge Knight in the early eighties and met him slowly. Our mutual friend, the poet Robert Slater, had long since been urging me from Kansas City to give Etheridge a call, since I lived only forty miles from him. I hesitated, probably out of a combination of shyness and fear. I knew his work and stood in awe of the man. But also Etheridge had only recently been released from the Indiana State Prison, where, besides becoming a poet, he had been a block boss by virtue of his toughness. Finally, Etheridge was a junky. He’d been seriously wounded in Korea, and in treatment became addicted to heroine. His addiction had led him to robbery and a seven-year sentence. He never really broke his bad habit, though some of the time he replaced it with a methadone habit.
Eventually, because of Slater’s persistence, I did meet Etheridge. He was a big man and sometimes had a dangerous look. But his great charm, his melodious voice that sounded like a bass saxophone, along with his lovely manners and forthrightness, nearly always made his presence a pleasure.
In the early days of our friendship my wife and I saw Etheridge mostly at the Bluebird Café in the heart of Indianapolis’s ghetto. Etheridge held court there on most Friday evenings. Some twenty of us became regulars. We’d go to hear Etheridge say his poems, and also to work under his tutelage. To hear him was to experience the old bardic tradition – his words had that kind of power, part of it the pure sound of his voice.
But most of the time Etheridge listened. He was a great listener. You always felt that, good or bad, your poem went right to some special depth in him, and resonated there. It was his power of listening that made him a great teacher. He taught us by the look on his face, the movements of his body. But, most, he taught us by his grunts, by call and response “yeahs” and other sounds that came from deep in his belly and chest. Etheridge’s grunts, which weren’t frequent, told us where our own power lay– in a word, a flow of sound, a line, an image, sometimes in a poem.
Etheridge didn’t have much patience with shy or reticent readers. He taught us,
“Take your space.” This meant that when we read we were leader of the band. We weren’t there to be deferential to, let alone frightened of, an audience. We were there to share with them work we’d made with pride. We were in control of both silence and sound. It was our job to transmit the way we heard our poems – vowel sequences, rhythm and beat. He taught us to hit each word the way a musician hits each note, so that beauty and power beauty gather one clear drop at a time.
Several times over the years I invited Etheridge to read at Wabash College where I taught. At one time my wife and I lived in a shack – she still calls it a “cabin” – twelve miles out from the farm town where the college was. The shack wasn’t much – no plumbing, no gas lines, though we did have electricity. My wife could no longer bake because mice had stripped the insulation from the oven, and we could no longer listen to music because mice had stripped the wires and blown out the receiver. Wasps were also present, but not a problem. I found that I could pas through a doorway at the same time a was crossing in the opposite direction, and neither of us batted an eye. At bottom, they were good neighbors, whom I had no intention to provoke.
The cabin’s redeeming quality was that it sat on top of a hill that, from late autumn to early spring when the leaves were down, overlooked a river called Sugar Creek. Etheridge loved it there. At heart, he still thought of himself as a rural Mississippi homeboy — witness the great “Idea of Ancestry,” and also “A Poem for Myself,” which ends:
Going back to Mississippi
This time to stay for good
Going back to Mississippi
This time to stay for good –
Gonna be free in Mississippi
Or dead in the Mississippi mud.
It made Etheridge happy to be with us on that hill and it made us happy to have him with us.
Etheridge had elegant manners, especially with women, and my wife, like most women he met, loved him. But, then, so did I. He married three times to strong women, all of them poets. In fact, he was catnip to the ladies. I’ll never forget the night at the Bluebird when a pretty young woman read a poem about licking an ice cream cone, all the time looking at Etheridge. She knew a lot about licking and, once or twice, Etheridge deigned to look back.
Besides teaching me to read my poems aloud, Etheridge taught me another still more important thing. I was talking with him once about “The Idea of Ancestry,” one of his masterpieces. In the poem, Etheridge, in prison, remembered or imagined a family reunion he was, blissful until his “habit came down.” He writes beautifully about the network that holds a strong family together. Back home, walking “barefooted in my grandmother’s backyard, “ sipping corn whiskey, flirting with the women, he “almost kicked it with the kinfolks.” But abruptly he leaves the reunion, his “guts screaming for junk, and “cracked a croaker’s crib for a fix.” Now pacing in his cell, he stares at a photo of
. . . 47 black faces across the space. I am all of them,
they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I have no children
to float in the space in between.”
The poem always moved me powerfully, and I told him that, despite the separation from family and native soil that his life brought about, I envied him such a family feeling. I told him that I didn’t have much, and that, because my grandparents didn’t speak English, and my parents were children when they came to America, I had no knowledge of the extended family that I hatched out of. That’s when Etheridge gave me one of his hard looks, and said, “You can know that stuff if you want to.” I understood what he meant.
Etheridge had high requirements for fellow poets. Once I heard him scold Ray di Palma for complaining that his work was temporarily stuck. Etheridge just said, “C’mon, man you’re a grown poet.” Another time, when Slater complained to him about Kansas City, Etheridge let him know that KC was Slater’s province, and if something was wrong it was his job to fix it. He saw the true government as a network of poets across the country and across the world.
What Etheridge meant when he told me that I could know about my family history was that I was a grown poet whose imagination had the power to find what it needed. And so, with the help of a little research about shtetl life and Jewish immigration, along with a few snippets of what I did know, I wrote a series of poems called “The Ragpicker’s Grandson,” and, in the process, realized that I was born long before 1930. I finished writing that series more whole than when I began.
The last time I saw Etheridge was at his “funeral.” I think it was Galway Kinnell, and maybe Donald Hall and Robert Bly as well, who had the idea of a memorial poetry reading for him while he was till strong enough to be there. Etheridge was dying of lung cancer. The event drew a large crowd, maybe 700 people gathered at the American Cabaret Theater in Indianapolis. The reading lasted for six hours, and I remember distinctly that during that time only two people left. It was that kind of reading. The poets who read to pay tribute were Robert Bly, Samuel Allen, Christopher Gilbert, Galway Kinnell, Haki Madhubuti, Dudley Randall, Elizabeth McKim, Mari Evans, and Jared Carter. Etheridge died seven weeks later, on March 10th, 1991.
But on that day Etheridge was in the auditorium for most of the six hours, mostly walking the outside aisles. I’m not sure if he wore a suit or a dashiki, but I know that he wore a kofia made of leopard skin. He looked like a tribal chieftain, and, as far as I was concerned, he was one.
I can only guess what his thoughts were. A strong foretaste of his death, I imagine. For all his regal presence, he was already a ghost looking back – a ghost with a sense of pride and fulfillment, but still, a ghost.