Poetry Dispatch No. 48 | January 13, 2006
Two Poems by (and more about) Ron Offen …
I knew Ron Offen back in the Chicago Days, early/mid l960’s, when he did a first book of poems called POET AS BAD GUY—which I now hold a copy of in my hands (mint-condition), inscribed: “To Norbert, Gotta have that beer some night. Ron”. Cyfoeth Publications, l963, 20 pages, $1. (Here’s to the everlasting and intrinsic value of small presses and little magazines. Long may they live. The older they get, the better they read, feel in one’s hands.)
The wrap-around cover features a black and white photograph of a crumbling brick building (just another Chicago street hymn to dereliction indeed, confirmation of Sandburg’s city of “….Shoveling,/ Wrecking, /Planning,/Building, breaking, rebuilding”) with poet Offen (in regulation trench coat) standing off to the side (lower right hand corner), right hand braced against the broken brick building, a cigarette dangling from the tough guy’s lips, and a show-me-what-you-got expression on his face, staring down at whatever lies beyond that crumbling brick wall of abandonment, decay and destruction, past and what’s next?. He was a poet. He was a bad guy. He was one of us. He was ready for whatever the city of the big and broken shoulders flung in his path.
We were part of neither a lost nor found generation, but more like an unknown generation of Chicago writers (unknown even amongst ourselves), which one of our own (spiritual leader of hard knocks and street-wise mentor, the incredible and inimitable Jay Robert Nash), with considerable Hemingwayesque bravado had dubbed us: “The Anti-establistmentarianists.” Or something like that. There’s an historical record somewhere in Chicago. I once had a copy. A news magazine story, with accompanying fish-eye photograph taken from above, of a group of some angry young Chicago scribblers standing in a circle staring (sneering?) up and into the viewer’s face. It appeared in the old Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine, back in the golden days of real Sunday newspaper magazine publications. I wonder how many of us are left? Who we all were? What they hell we actually accomplished in the writing world.)
I’m happy to report that Ron Offen is one of the survivors of that acknowledged periods of Chicago’s literary history. That he was one of those who at one time in his life, under whatever condition(s), made the pact with that divine devil standing at some Chicago crossroads: Ok. Here’s the deal. I get to concentrate my whole life, inner being, on writing; you guarantee me nothing by way of fame, financial success, honors– only survival, for whatever number of days, months, years that remain. And you hold that pawn time-ticket too.
I loved Ron Offen’s poem. “Poets As Bad Guy, then and now: ”I like to enter small jerkwater towns/with engine roaring, then rock to a stop/and park before a group of local clowns/to make a cigarette-dangling entrance./I glance past them with a frown,/puffing, turning my collar up, and digging my hands deep down/in my trench-coated stealth; then weasel my eyes around/for some unknown assailant and proceed…” That’s how Chicago poets and writers perceived themselves. Bad guys. But heroes with heart—and some humor.
Stop me before this turns into memoir!
Let me conclude by mentioning that I have not seen Ron Offen since those early Chicago days—though we are occasionally in touch via the mails and internet. That he worked as an insurance investigator when I first met him, and was once a nightclub doorman. That he later moved on to California where he spent most of his life as an editor, drama critic and librarian. He co-edited Odyssey: Explorations of Contemporary Poetry and the Arts, was the poetry editor of December and The Chicago Daily News. His poetry has appeared in over a hundred publications, and he has published four books of poems to date. In l989 he founded (still publishes/edits) one of the best literary magazines in the country, Free Lunch. (“Subscriptions are free to all serious poets living in the U.S.A.” ) That’s another thing about old, Chicago anti-establismentarianists—generous hearts, all.
A few years ago Offen returned to the midwest, (Glenview, IL) and word has it, inhabits a summer cabin upon occasion somewhere in Wisconsin. One of these days, some summer night, I hope to run into him and have that beer we never had way back once in Chicago, when we were anti-establishmentarianists. Bad guys. I plan to wear my old trench coat–and dangle a cigarette from my lips. Norbert Blei
REMEMBRANCE OF MUMMIES by Ron Offen
In my sixth year I escaped
into the blue lights of the exits
while Buster Crabbe and Lon Chaney
battled tattered, tottering monsters.
Later, in the Sunday museum
that smelled like the dead pee of little children,
I rushed past the reconstructed Mastodons
and rouged Neanderthals
to the cool basement where the Pharaoh’s bandaged,
time-burned children lay.
And somehow alone on summer mornings
cutting strips of rags for wrapping the clay men
I buried in tin cans,
I dreamt of a child a million years away
discovered them and knowing
I was there.
FATHER by Ron Offen
I have this image of you
that I never saw. I’d left you alone
high on a summer dune,
flying a kite you’d launched for me.
It had blown so far
that its taut tether disappeared
half-way to its rag-tailed, buffeted back.
And all of this I didn’t see
but can remember clear as if
I’d been that Hi-Flyer pulling further
and further from the earth, now that I’m left
as you were, holding the string perplexedly.
from GOD’S HAIRCUT And Other Remembered Dreams, Pygmy Forest Press, 1999