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Michael Ryan

Michael Ryan

Michael Ryan and Tom Lux met at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1971 and became close friends for the next forty-six years. At Iowa, they played pool in a working-class tavern every day in the late afternoon until evening, when Michael went home and Tom sat at the bar and wrote lines in his notebook. When he had enough lines, he’d write 10 poems—not 9, not 11—and that was how he worked for the rest of his life (though not sitting at a bar). Once they played a game of pool for these stakes: the loser had to quit writing poems and devote his life to promoting the career of the winner. Tom lost. Happily for us, he didn’t pay off the bet.


In the summer of 1973, when I told Tom I had just found out I won the Yale Prize, he ran across the room, lifted me off my feet, and spun me around like we were dancers in Oklahoma!.  

In the summer of 1995, when Tom finished reading my autobiography, he said, "You're lucky not to be in rubber pajamas."

He had a rare talent for empathy fused with irony and his sweetness was boundless. He loved dumb humanity, struggling humanity, hapless humanity. People who couldn't help themselves but acted with good intentions. Driving from Warren Wilson to Ashville in my old 1978 red Fiat Spyder, top down (donchaknow), we saw spray-painted on a concrete bridge spanning the highway the shaky black letters that spelled, "I love you Sweatheart." For me it was an amusement, for Tom it was a poem.

Through the kindness of his wife, Jenny, I got to talk to Tom an hour before hospice service arrived. We actually made jokes. I said, in my unconvincing Jewish old lady accent, "We used to be quite the dancers"; we had often remarked what a miracle it was that we were still alive after our many youthful shenanigans (and worse). The last thing I said to him before goodbye was, "you made a lot of people happy in your life," and without missing a beat he said, "you made a lot of people happy too." He was unique—as a poet, a person, and a friend—the most relentlessly magnanimous person I've ever known. And he's right there in his poems, to visit whenever we want to. It's heartbreaking how alive they are. He had plenty of wrinkles, so there was no saccharine in him, but: What a sweatheart.

"I Love You Sweatheart"

A man risked his life to write the words.
A man hung upside down (an idiot friend
holding his legs?) with spray paint
to write the words on a girder fifty feet above
a highway. And his beloved,
the next morning driving to work...?
His words are not (meant to be) so unique.
Does she recognize his handwriting?
Did he hint to her at her doorstep the night before
of "something special, darling, tomorrow"?
And did he call her at work
expecting her to faint with delight
at his celebration of her, his passion, his risk?
She will know I love her now,
the world will know my love for her!
A man risked his life to write the words.
Love is like this at the bone, we hope, love
is like this, Sweatheart, all sore and dumb
and dangerous, ignited, blessed—always,
regardless, no exceptions,
always in blazing matters like these: blessed.




from Split Horizon, Houghton Mifflin Compay, 1994


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