Missing Philomene

I am no longer afraid
Of this poem
From which
I will never return

–Philomene Long

By Jim Smith

Philomene Long died later in the day. We had talked on the phone that fateful Tuesday and I had told her that I wouldn’t be able to meet her for coffee or a drink. Her cough - which she said was bronchitis - sounded better than it had even the day before. I commended her on getting better but urged her not to overdo it, just yet.

She was in a typical good mood. After lamenting the wearing away of the poetry walls at Windward, we laughed about how the Egyptians and Babylonians could make stone tablets that lasted thousands of years, while ours were barely visible after a mere 10 years. I’ve never known anyone to laugh as much as Philomene. While I’m no expert, she seemed like a Zen Master to me. Being in her radiant presence made it inconceivable to think that death was lurking nearby. As San Francisco poet Jack Foley said, “You want me to describe Philomene? How does one describe the sun?”

I had known of Philomene for many years, and had occasional superficial interaction with her. But on June 24, at the dedication of the Venice sign on Windward, we spent several hours together at Danny’s Deli, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. From then, until the end, we talked, emailed and/or visited each other nearly every day. At first, I had trepidation that I could maintain a conversation with such an advanced being. She soon put me at ease. “I am the most humble person in Venice,” she said impossibly.
She also let me know in passing that she had read much of what I had written in the Beachhead over the years. “You know, you should write another article about how to survive in Venice if you’re poor,” she advised. But that was two years ago, I thought to myself. How does she remember this stuff? Well, how can I refuse? See “Surviving” on page three.

Each conversation with Philomene was like a roller coaster ride, with every twist and turn becoming an invitation for a squeal of delight from her. The few half-way intelligent things I managed to say were immediately scribbled on the pad of paper she always carried. I doubted that such furious writing could be read even by its author, until the following day when she would repeat nearly verbatim the substance of those wandering and joyful conversations.

Philomene never complained about anything, not even the constant coughing she endured in her last week. Every inconvenience was merely another opportunity for laughter or a poem. Incredible, I thought, if only the whole world felt and reacted this way! While she didn’t complain, she couldn’t hide the hole in her heart from the loss of John Thomas, her husband and other self. That day at Danny’s Deli, amid the laughter, she told me how sad she was that John was painted on the restaurant wall, but she wasn’t with him. She didn’t care about being on the wall, she just wanted to be with John, even in a painting. Her poem, America, reprinted on page nine is about what’s happening in this country today, but it is also about John who died in jail because the guards would not get him medical attention for his heart condition. It says,

You are dying
Lying on a floor in a jail cell
Gasping for air
Calling out for yourself

Often when John would pop into her consciousness, she would look far away, as if seeing him down the ocean front, or around the block. She never said she saw him, but once she did have a vision, she told me, of the Muse, the Lady, that many Venice poets write about. She told me that she was on the beach one day when she looked out at the water, and saw our Lady of Poetry, gliding across it. The vision was powerful and effective. As a result, with the guidance of the Muse, she quickly wrote the poem that appears on page nine. In retrospect, I think it could express her feeling about death - and life. It begins:

It is not the end but the becoming
It is not the beginning but the becoming
It is the becoming the becoming the becoming

Philomene was distressed at the changes she saw in Venice. She felt that the Venice of poets and artists was being displaced by the Venice of developers and high rollers. We talked about the turmoil in Venice in the 1960s, when some poets including John Haag and Rick Davidson had taken a path toward becoming more overtly political, while others including Philomene had not. I suggested to her that it was, at last, time to heal that rift. She responded with a smile, “Yes, but you and I are the only ones left.” She knew it wasn’t quite true, and over the next few days became excited about enlisting poetry to fight to save our little city, which she compared to those of the classical Greeks. She talked about the ancient Irish poets who would take the field between two armies, before a battle could begin, and would hurl invective, spells and curses - really just poems - at the other side. The old poets must have had an impact since the custom continued among the Kelts for centuries.

She wrote to me on August 13: “To let you know (in between coughs) it is my intention to submit for next issue not a suggestion or a question, but a declaration. As Poet Laureate of Venice, California and on behalf of the Muse – I am declaring war -- Her poems poised to storm from the beachhead for the soul of Venice (in my mind, America’s last bastion for its freedoms).”

Out of this was to be born a new poetry. Verses with the power of a sword, or a bomb. This was Philomene’s project during her last few days on Earth.

I wrote back to her: “Dear Philomene, you got me thinking of poems as pistols.... Here is the Manifesto of Al-Cadence.” (reprinted on page 9)

While my poem-making powers were puny compared to hers, she was always generous, and replied: “And you were ready. You aimed. And FIRED!!!!!!!!!! A most beatitudenous fire!”

The Beatitudes and beatitude were concepts of the highest regard to Philomene. They permeated her sense of being and her world view. The Beatitudes are part of Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, and are Christian prescriptions for leading a good life, although they are differently interpreted by everyone from the Pope to Philomene. They begin, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Beatitude (without the s) undoubtedly stems from the Beatitudes but this concept, popularized by Jack Kerouac, is not overtly religious. Kerouac explained it thusly, “Beat doesn’t mean tired, or bushed, so much as it means beato, the Italian for beatific: to be in a state of beatitude, like Saint Francis, trying to love all life, trying to be utterly sincere with everyone, practicing endurance, kindness, cultivating joy of heart...”

Philomene was the personification of beatitude. In last month’s Beachhead, Philomene presented a beatitude contest that, by posing questions and mental exercises, attempted to introduce readers to the concept that is so fundamental to Venice’s Beat Generation. (see some of the contest responses elsewhere in this issue).

I called Philomene the following day, Wednesday. Neither she, nor her answering machine, picked up. Same story on Thursday. When Fred Dewey, of Beyond Baroque, called to say he had bad news, I knew what it was before he told me. It was impossible, but it was true. Philomene, our great poet and inspiration, was gone.

What happened to Philomene? Aside from a nasty cough, which she seemed to be getting over, she appeared to be the picture of health. She looked 10 or 20 years younger than she was. Later, people mentioned her high blood pressure as a possible cause. Well, maybe. I feel robbed of a close friend whose great mind and personality I had only begun to know. And, without Philomene, Venice is the one with a hole in its heart.

Posted: Sat - September 1, 2007 at 12:56 PM