Songs of an OC Son: Remembering, Celebrating Robert Peters (1924-2014)

Categories: OC Bookly

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The death last week of poet and critic, memoirist, UC Irvine professor and sometime performance artist Robert Peters offers yet another moment of confounding if useless juxtapositions. The physically strong, robust specimen of all-American Midwestern vigor, the robust body and mind, the wit and hearty affections - for words, for people - had diminished, it seemed, if to perhaps all but Bob himself. He was deaf, his body falling apart yet Bob Peters seemed always...That's it.  Always, as in everpresent. He complained, gently, funnily, about his health in a poetic rant celebrating (!) his 84th brithday, but the mind and creative engagement persisted. My own sentence fragment, offered lamely, and in its complete incompleteness and open-ended appreciation is an impossible assessment, trying to be content with what stands as a very full life, as they say. Peters published dozens of books of poetry, and famously compiled his own take on contemporary poets in his multi-volume The Great American Bake-Off series, dressed up as Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, taught grads and undergrads Victorian lit and more at UCI, lived as an openly and proudly gay man with his adoring spouse the poet and writer Paul Trachtenberg in, of all places, a modest tract home in Huntington Beach, Orange County, California, USA where, upon entering their home a visitor would immediately note and appreciate a complete copy of the Oxford English Dictionary and on a nearby wall a poster of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, dig it.


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Child is the Father of the Man
I was fortunate to take a class with Peters after following his career for years. He was a vital part of the So Cal literary community and beyond, and I remember well the first time I saw him in person, not as a performer or panelist but attending a celebration of Beat poets at Cal State Long Beach in the early 1980s. I could go on and on about that weekend, which featured Ginsberg and Snyder and others, but the impressions begin with seeing, physically, the huge, oxen, Roman-god form of Peters, both slightly scary and magnificent, a tall and wonderfully imposing figure. The Wisconsin-born writer was nearly famous for his dress-up characterizations in what was then called performance art, and for the criticism, the boostering of other poets as Diane Wakowski, much of his reputation stemming not so much from his Ph D and careful, impressive academic work but from his own success with a couple of important volumes of writing including Songs for a Son, one of the very first collections of any poetry which I owned, and which garnered attention and praise for Peters the artist. (It was published by Norton, and seems to be around at used book stores.) The book is ostensibly about the child who died, and love for the child, and the man. It's just beautiful and includes a poem I plan to end with, below.

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Wisconsin Adam
Unfortunate if you don't know Peters' work, of which there is plenty (maybe start with Selected and New Poems 1967-1991, with a nifty blurb from former student and super-famous poet Billy Collins) but I am happy to fill in with some details, and tell a few stories, and certainly solicit from others. Haven't heard if there's a memorial planned. Hope so. Peters, though never leaving his Wisconsin roots and childhood, was a son of Orange County. Certainly UC Irvine should put something together. Count me in, if such a tribute happens. Meanwhile, Bob would have loved to participate in it himself, as his sense of drama and wit, with their relation to the presentation of self made him who he was if no doubt frightened some people. He was a physically impressive person, as this sexy photo suggests, the cover of a gorgeous slim volume called The Drowned Man to the Fish. Check out the title poemAnd see below for the legendary Don Bachardy's portrait of RP. Thick hands and big barrel chest, amazing face, I think I came to understand him and further appreciate his place in the world through his own almost embarrassed gritty, honest, bare-bones reveal of himself as the child of dirt-poor, perhaps dirt-rich, farm people, mostly uneducated, from Wisconsin. His poetry is of course terrific, but the autobiographical material is some of the best nonfiction you can find about the life of a particular generation of rural Americans and their kids, Bob himself being the farm boy who, once he'd seen Paris, could not be kept down on that farm. His memoir Crunching Gravel never failed to delight and impress my own Creative Nonfiction writing students, who responded to the simultaneously vivid descriptions, emotional provocation and spare, deceptively simple prose. That lovely, small, perfect and harsh book is organized in short passages, almost seeming to be transcripts of speech except with the precision of, yes, a poet. The next book in the series is about Peters' war experience, titled For You, Lilli Marlene: A Memoir of World War II. It includes the ecstatic moment when Bob and other GIs saw Herself perform in Paris. Some deal, as they say in Wisconsin, whose university press published Bob consistently.      .  
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Famous face

I suddenly realize I am likely not the best or most qualified person to write up this obit, appreciation, but I like to flatter myself that I was a friend, and was certainly a fan. So, story time: When the most excellent film of the life of Harvey Milk opened, the Rebel Girl and I made sure to be among the first in line to see it, at a matinee in Irvine. As we entered the gaudily cavernous multi-mini-plex narthex, popcorn popping but the place noticeably empty, we were forced to confront the fact of our unlikely vanguardism in the OC.  But, wait, who was this? Paul and Bob there in the lobby. I had not seen either in years but I think I shall always cherish the huge smile of recognition from my former professor, and everybody embraced, and Paul explained after we chatted and when it was time to go into the desperate little-screen theater that Bob would not accompany us. No, in his deafness he insisted, persisted, thrived on even, and would in fact miss watching the epic film about the epic political activist and instead, get this, sit in the lobby at a table doing, yes, crossword puzzles, cocooned or enveloped or encouraged (you choose) by and in his own world, but with a bigger world just there, available too. It was, is, a great film, and there was Bob waiting to be told about it later by his Paul when we got out.

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Life on the farm
A couple of summers ago we were walking our little canyon road, back from picking mulberries or hiking and I noticed sitting in the passenger seat of a passing car a familiar, still hulking physique and quickly checked to make sure that, yes, it was Bob, being taken out for a drive to the hills by Paul. It was the last time I saw him, and the kind of coincidence that you cherish because there is no way it could have been planned or even replicated, just so. Paul explained, Bob mostly smiled, nodded. It was enough.

But Bob was also, of course, a scholar-teacher as well as poet, and it was with his encouragement that I embraced, researched, started my own little local one-man band on behalf of the great Thomas McGrath, another son of the plains, North Dakota. You know how a good teacher or, for that matter a good person can see something in you and encourage it? Bob saw my interest in the eco-communist McGrath, told me that I could write or say or think something that nobody else had yet about his work, and cut me loose, with me almost believing that I might be a real scholar myself someday, maybe a Ph D student even. Thankfully, I didn't go that direction, but for a year or so I was your go-to UCI Tom McGrath Fan Club President, and maybe made Dr. Peters a little proud. 

After retiring, the intellectually peripatetic Bob Peters seemed to have embraced Scrabble, 
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The life of the mind
and big-time. I kid you not. He and Paul started a local Scrabble club and went on cruises devoted to assembling the nifty little tiles and even won some prizes, money. Nice that a man of, yes, letters, could continue to enjoy, compose, create with that terrific game. Some metaphor, that.

I'm reluctant to end. But, as promised, here's a poem from Songs for a Son, titled "Resolution." A fine piece I think for this modest remembrance. 

We hang:
plump leaves
swung from a 
summer-seared branch
suspended.

Tentworms, a whole
prismatic range,
spin gauze
will soon cover us
smother us:
slick, slick, hear them
chew.

Death sweeps through.
Burrs cling
to the billowy gauze
of that
proud gown.

Just lovely. We are all caterpillars, maybe moths. Life is short. Live it big, as Bob did. As I wrote to Paul, I can't even begin to do justice to the huge, hulking, vigorous life of Robert Peters in this little Sunday morning post, so I (and you) will I hope be happy to settle for love.

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KOFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.



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