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Monday, April 1, 1991

The Poet

                                                                                                                          March 1991



Dear G.U.C.I. Staff:


It has been a long time since I've written, I'm sorry.  This winter's been
rather rough and depressing, filled with the dread of war, a couple of close
friends about to divorce, a classmate's serious illness, you get the picture. 
But the promise of spring is almost in the air and I am encouraged by the
thought that in a short time the little yippers will be back, noisy, messy,
full of life and hope, and laughter (and maybe even a few tears).


Yesterday the Indianapolis community lost a unique member.  He was a black poet
named Etheridge Knight, 61 years old who died of cancer.  I normally would not
burden you with such sad news, but Mr. Knight was an acquaintance of mine, an
unusual and uplifting sort of fellow, whose life and words bring me a feeling
of joy even at this time of loss. 


I met Etheridge last year in a downtown bar called the Chatterbox.  It's a
place I used to frequent to hear local jazz musicians jam late into the night. 
It was anything but high class (kind of a wide hallway with tables and a
postage stamp sized bandstand), but the music was hot and the beer was cold.  I
often went to listen to Jimmy Coe, a favorite tenor sax player who, at 62 years
of age, could blow with the kids, had played with the greats including Charlie
Parker, and represented (to me) the totality of the history of black jazz.  But
he should be the subject of a letter all his own. 


 One night very late, I'm listening to the quartet, Jimmy Coe introduces Etheridge Knight who takes the mike to read poetry against the background of a quite blues number.  I kind of
laughed to myself, thinking we were flashing back to Greenwich Village in the
late 50's when beatniks held poetry readings to jazz accompaniment (I admit to
spending time on the north side of Chicago, in my youth, in such coffee houses
listening to existentialists, and wishing I was old enough to grow a goatee). 
At first, as you can tell, I didn't take this scene very seriously. 

But when Etheridge began to speak, his words commanded an immediate respect. 
It was apparent that the audience felt it was hearing something important. 
Knight recited poems that he had written while in prison.  He'd spent seven
years in a federal penitentiary (I never had the nerve to ask him about his
crime), and spoke of the freedom of the soul and the shackles of society.  From
the midst of despair, drug addiction, incarceration, he wrote of life and love,
music and creativity.  He blew me away.


Later, I was lucky enough to be able to sit and talk with Etheridge.  We had a
drink.  He got a kick out of the fact that I was a Rabbi wearing gym shoes and
an old army jacket.  As parents always do, we started talking about our kids. 
Then a bit of magic happened.  The poet leaned over and, in a lowered voice,
told me that he had something special to share with me, a poem that he had
written to his daughter, while he was still in prison.  He paused, and then
recited to me personally a heartbreaking poem of the anguish he felt as a
father, deprived of seeing his child grow up.  He blew me away again.


I saw Etheridge Knight many times after that night, always at the Chatterbox. 
As he walked by my table he would usually nod and say "Rabbi..." To which I
would reply, "Poet..."  We'd smile at our "titles."  Now that he is gone, I
can't help but think of his style, his spirit, undaunted, wounded, smiling
through the tears.  It makes me think of spring and the coming onslaught of the
little yippers and how happy I am that this place will once again be filled
with them.


Ron