Remembering Harry

STEPHEN SOBA

Harry was a strange rare creature on the earth, a man who sees the world so well it makes him dizzy. To anchor himself, to keep his balance, he locates and seizes, or creates from scratch, that which to him is beautiful, true, and alive. He wrote and lived with humor and clarity, sharpness and desire, amazement, defiance, and pride. He was the funniest man I ever knew and the best dancer.

He could be remote and cold and a harsh critic of other people — especially of their shoes. His irritability was a force of nature. But then he’d telephone and hit the perfect note, or cook the perfect meal, or read something he’d found or — best of all — something he’d written, or exhibit a picture he was working on, rushing to warn “But it’s not finished!” You’d forgive everything in a second.

Even his envelopes were brilliant. On one he scotch-taped this personal ad: “I wish to share my wandering, searching, questioning life with girl who still knows the wonder, mystery, and magic of living. I am David, 31, slim, attractive, unattached, and Australian.”

To me he always seemed complete, more alive than other people, hypnotized with excitement and yet supernaturally calm. There was a facade to penetrate — one had to step through a mirror into his real presence. He often held back. But at the heart of his aloofness was an invitation, a dare, to know him — and a great longing to be known. Brilliantly witty and terribly sad, he found solace in his creativity which released him, in his own words, into a state of “savage joy.” He lived, to the end, impatiently, profoundly, and with a courage that cannot be measured in words.

This is the last thing he wrote, before his inscription to Tess, a long poem entitled “Eleven Actresses,” written by hand in his last notebook in December, 1993, three months before he died:

The one who says she is all finished
Demonstrates on stage all that is gone.
You Leave A Lot To Be Desired
Is the name of the play.
It’s a period piece.
Has what you’d expect.
Inherent bitterness against the world,
resurgencies of grudges,
lava the color of unreconciled childhoods.
The audience is appalled.
No man speaks.
Monologue — no; diatribe — no;
pretty discourse — no; Greek — not really, But there is death.
Oh my dears, I have not been ushering
the aisles for these many decades
Without seeing the subtext.
***
The one who says she is all finished
Demonstrates on stage all that is gone.
It started as a novelty act
and blossomed into a full-fledged camellia
of blame
A pledge of indifference freshens the
deadness; I mean the sense of
no more happening, I mean the
act break where the producer
fake-jovially informs the audience
anything is possible — goodnight
and thank you for your cooperation!
***
She is dressed like an unsculpted
slab of marble.
Monument to her art.
Insight scaling insight.
Emotional high. Eyes yet.
Unshorn, unshaven, unchic.
It’s a look you see on
certain women after they’ve
finished a quart of whiskey.
But it isn’t a story of alcoholism.
That would be too easy,
too dilutable.
(I’m drunk now.)
No, she is on another track altogether, Like I said, about Demise.
It’s a short trip really.
Not some Egyptian trek
Where you pass the Pyramids
that could have been your
monumental loves, you
sky-scraping career, your
complex progeny, all that
reassuring dust.
No, it’s quick.
Like some car accident
recalled later in traction.
Protracted but sudden,
Cast before you know it.
Plaster of fixed persona.

I am not enjoying the performance.
It reminds me too much of my own
squashed bouquets.
Of dress rehearsals that turned out
to be the real thing and I
acted badly.
I’m alone and evaluating the
actress.

She can’t be more than thirty. Forty?
Time hasn’t been so cruel.
There are roles left, other
significant headdresses.
***
The one who says she is all finished
Demonstrates on stage all that is gone.
I am mesmerized
But I fall asleep.
I dream.
I’m in a corridor of bright talented women.
They implore me to write parts for them.
One steps forward.
I detect in her a distinction.
The stamp of completion.
God’s inductee. Fatal audition.

By a trick of stage magic
She is seen in the finale
as a glowing new skeleton
Black light maybe, or trick scrims.
It is the special universal nakedness
the audience has paid for
despite their revulsion
despite their bourgeois outrage,
their half-price tickets
their reluctant catharsis
They think they’re seeing God’s handicraft,
Him at his worst,
I mean truest.

But God is no ghoul, I mean fool
It’s just that he picks
his actresses carefully
So that when they are discarded
He has his own catharsis.
The title, You Leave A Lot To
Be Desired. puts him off
But he decides to be a sport about it
And not incinerate the theater.

Anyway, the actress has fallen to her knees
Palms open and outstretched.
Classical, I guess.
I guess she’s about to die.

I came out tonight to learn something
about abandon.
I’m a bad student.
I drank and must have missed
the whole point to the show.
All the loss seems so petty now,
The actress who keeps saying she is all finished
Never seems done.
(Perhaps even in death she is afraid
of being out of work.)
I return to my wine-stained
garret
and light a candle.
It’s chilly tonight
And the rain hasn’t let up.

There is something else I’d like to read. I received this letter in June of 1978, written from the south of France on his way back to America from Bali. The return address says “H. Kondoleon, c/o ASPCA, Nice, France, (Cote d’Azur ennui)”:

“Dear Steve, How do you tell the story of a 23 year old boy who feels like dropping dead? It’s a big fat bore. All day I have been passing through 600 moods, most of them on the verge of tossing myself from great heights. I keep seeing into people’s deepest unhappiness and get vertigo from it all… Why must I suffer so unnecessarily? …I think of dear Anne Frank at odd times and speak to her. Sylvia is such a constant presence… This does NOT make life fun. Maybe I should dye my hair blonde? Lines of Lucy revisit me and I laugh out loud and temporarily rise out of the blackness…Oh, I long for my paints and Billie singing while I drown on a piece of paper or canvas…

“On the way to dinner (snails, sole — excellent, a strawberry cake — bad beyond belief, barely chewable, I left it as a tip) I almost stepped on a Frenchman who was lying outside a bar…You want maybe I should describe the French Riviera? Water: tres cold but a color to envy; lots of bare boobs; poodles with mink coats…I already wrote my parents that I’m so sick of summer I’m going to put a lampshade over my head when I get home. For all my depression, I was dressed rather wonderfully tonight with my new skinny green suede tie, black peter pan shirt, black beatle boots, and black crocodile belt (Paint it black you devil). CANNOT WAIT to hear “Some Girls,” new Stones album…If they are concert-ing in New York I will have another reason to live (the first being to wear my $70 grey suede shoes — hand made, man). Promise me you will save a drop of time for me… Toot-a-lou for now or bon nuit depending on your tendency, Love, Harry. June 13, 1978.”

I don’t know how to conclude speaking on this occasion. I seek Harry’s counsel in my head. He says: Oh Steve, do anything! Break into song, impersonate Nico singing “All Tomorrow’s Parties” followed by a rendition of Ann-Marget’s closing number from Bye Bye Birdie; pull a roast chicken out of your hat; screen key sequences from Rosemary’s Baby; deliver a stinging condemnation of the mayor for even thinking about eliminating the Division of AIDS Services of New York; read from the phone book; fly; quote Plath; at the very least, change your outfit!

Instead, I salute his family for their great love and endurance and I say to Harry: Not toot-a-lou but bonne nuit; a bien tot; toujours. Thank you for your extraordinary presence in our world, for your genius, your beauty and your love. You remain my hero and the greatest friend of my life.