In Memory

Edward Cox

Edward Cox

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04/08/14 12:15 AM #1    

Joseph Herring

Richard McCann on ED COX
(July 6, 1946 - September 1, 1992)

This I say, to you and you, is all I know.
I am a passenger, hear me--listen as I go.

--Ed Cox, "Passenger"

(photo by Robert W. Witt).

The year Ed died of an unexpected stroke at the age of 46, he volunteered to come with me to visit my mother in the nursing home, where she was making a lonely recovery from a broken hip and a series of sudden diabetic comas.  I knew Ed would make a good visitor for my mother, who had always hungered to tell the story of her life to everyone she met, even then, when there was really no one left who wished to hear it.  But Ed had a gift for listening deeply, with a patient and even profound attentiveness.  

This gift was evidenced everywhere in his poems, which often included not only the voices of his parents--whose pained and loving utterances resonate and echo through such poems as "Testimonies," "Passing It On," and "These Two:  Ezra and Agnes"--but also the voices of people he encountered around the city, such as the street evangelist in "Mary in November," or the homeless man in "Cuddle the Bricks" whose oracular words are almost Whitmanic:  "I am you,/ as you are me in the misery of these avenues/ and streets.  Cuddle the bricks, whisper/ beneath the great map of stars."  Ed's gift for empathy, I imagine, was one of the things that brought him to the work he did for years, conducting poetry workshops for battered women and old people, first at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, and then at St. Mary's Court, the House of Ruth, and the Roosevelt for Senior Citizens.

That day, when we got to the nursing home, Ed stood at the foot of my mother's bed as I woke her.  I wondered if she would recognize him as someone she'd met almost 20 years before, back when he was briefly dating my brother David, who had later died of an overdose.

"Do you know who this is?" I asked her as she opened her eyes.  I pointed at Ed.

For a moment, she looked confused.  Then she brightened.  "No," she said.  "But I can tell you this--he's a priest."

"No," I said, "he's a poet." 

Then I looked back at Ed, who was standing there quietly, with his handsome, lanky Irishness.  I could see what my mother saw.  There was something priestly about him.  One could see it in his earnest attentiveness, for instance, and in the gentleness of his gaze--though there was nothing pious about him, nothing at all, and, to the best of my knowledge, he no longer practiced the Catholic religion in which he'd been raised.  If there was something of the priest about Ed, it was because he had schooled himself so ardently in the tradition of poet-priests whose works and lives he admired, such as Daniel and Philip Berrigan, who'd been arrested for their anti-war activities, and Ernesto Cardenal, the revolutionary Nicaraguan priest and poet whose words had provided Ed with one of the epigraphs for Part Of, the manuscript he was working on at the time of his death:  "One feels oneself part of another person and that other person becomes a part of us."  

It was Ed's deep and abiding spiritual dimension, in fact, that distinguished him from the other gay poets who participated in Mass Transit, the now legendary open readings that took place in the early 1970's above the Community Bookshop on P Street, where one could hear new work not only Ed but also by such poets as Michael Lally, Lee Lally, Beth JoselowTerence Winch, Tina Darragh, Ethelbert Miller, and Liam Rector.  Toward the end of Mass Transit, in the mid-1970's, when some of the other gay poets who went there found themselves increasingly identifying with the New York School and the work of such writers as Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, and Kenward Elmslie, Ed continued on the path he'd already set for himself, following in the footsteps of writers like Thomas Merton, the contemplative Trappist monk and social activist whose poems Ed sometimes quoted and who, like Ed, seemed (as Eleanor Sullo has written of Merton) "torn by conflicting energies--zeal both for the sensory life around him in scenes, buildings, great art, and food, and for the something more that dwells in the spiritual realm."  In Ed's work--and, most particularly, in his earlier work, from Blocks (1972) and Waking (1977)--it's hard not to see that even his brief, evocative explorations of sexual desire and longing are essentially contemplative, as in his poem:


someone will come up

approach you on street

and say

I haven't been here long

this place........this way

this wind        these windows

But there is something that these earlier poems (with what poet Reginald Shepherd has has described as their "spare, wistful evocations of adolescent gay longing" and "desire for touch and connection," rendered in a language that's often "stripped" to its most "essential elements") don't quite show of him:  Ed himself was a big talker, a chain smoker who fueled himself with endless cups of milky coffee.  When he stayed at my apartment--as he sometimes did during the last year of his life, after he'd hit some hard times and lost his Capitol Hill apartment--he and I would sit awake until 4 a.m., pushing each other deeper and deeper into restless late-night conversations that inevitably tracked back to the sorts of pained and emblematic childhood memories that stirred Ed's imagination and formed the basis of a number of acutely rendered poems, such as "After the Rent," "Family Album," "My Aunt," "What Do I Know," "Innocence," and "High School."  

It's in Ed's later work--and, most particularly, in his brilliant and astonishing long poem, "These Two: Ezra and Agnes," published in its entirety in The Washington Review in 1989--that his voice finds its most complex and fullest amplitude.  If one compares "These Two: Ezra and Agnes," for instance, to what seems its initial, much briefer version, "Agnes and Ezra," which Ed published in his chapbook Blocks (1972), it's not difficult to discern the ways in which he learned over time to open and sustain his poems, as much as to distill them.  In fact, the achievement of "These Two:  Ezra and Agnes"--a poem comprised in great part of stories and secrets that Ed's parents told him, in voices that are at once regretful, tender, harsh, and deeply anguished--derives from Ed's ability to render painful and difficult material without comfort and without flinching.  Indeed, "These Two:  Ezra and Agnes" (reprinted here) strikes me as Ed's great poetic achievement, with its compressed but densely lyrical portrait of Irish-American working class family life, and its evocations of the harsh and loving words we hear in childhood that will haunt us forever.

As for Ed's own childhood: he was born in 1946 and, as William R. MacKaye writes in the biographical sketch that accompanies Ed's Collected Poems, he was "taken home to a house on Capitol Hill where his first memories were shaped. He had more than thirty addresses after that first childhood home, but all of them--except the four years he spent in the Navy, stationed first in Tokyo and then in Baltimore--were in and around Washington." A 1964 graduate of Archbishop Carroll High School, the first fully integrated school in Washington, D.C., he studied poetry writing at the University of Maryland for one semester with Rudd Fleming and Rod Jellema, although he was not, at heart, an academic poet.  In great part, Ed educated himself through his own omnivorous reading--which included philosophy and theology, as well as poetry (he was better acquainted with Kierkegaard than anyone I've ever known)--as well as through his own determined curiosity about the life around him, particularly as it related to "Making a Difference, through act and through poetry," as Gwendolyn Brooks wrote about him. In 1969, Ed helped to found the DMZ G.I. Coffeehouse at 918 9th Street N.W., a haven for G.I.'s seeking counsel and information on anti-war activities. In the 1970s, in addition to being active in Mass Transit, he was one of the founding members (along with Michael Lally, Lee Lally, Terence Winch, and Ed Zahniser) of Some of Us Press, publishing affordable chapbooks such as Michael Lally's South Orange Sonnets, Lee Lally'sThese DaysBeth Joselow's Ice Fishing, and Leonard Randolph's Scar Tissue.

Ed belonged to what we natives think of as the real Washington, D.C.--not the city of monuments and power, but the city that's made of memory and particularities (even as the city itself grows less particular, now that so many standardized office buildings have supplanted much of what was once distinctive).  Ed's work traverses the entire city, just as he did--from Anacostia Naval Base to St. Joseph's Church on Capitol Hill, where he first attended grammar school, and from St. Elizabeth's, where his mother was sometimes hospitalized for depression, to the curved wooden benches of Dupont Circle. At the same time, it traverses the Washington of Ed's childhood and memories, the city in which his father, a linotype operator, worked the late night "lobster shift at The Washington Post" (as Ed wrote describes it in "These Two:  Ezra and Agnes"), spending "long hours/ at the keyboard, meeting press deadlines" before "stopping at New York Avenue for a cup of coffee and a doughnut" on his way back home.     

Even now, more than a decade after Ed's death from a sudden and unexpected stroke--possibly resulting from undiagnosed endocarditis (he'd had rheumatic fever as a child)--it's hard to realize that I won't be running into him walking down a city street, as I often used to. It's hard to consider how his life and work were cut short.  Only a few years before his death, he was awarded the prestigious Lyndhurst Prize for his poetry, and he was working to complete a new manuscript, Part Of--a manuscript that went unpublished until 2001, when poet Richard Peabody, with intelligence and kindness, published Ed's posthumous Collected Poems.  They are poems well worth the reading.  Ed was a writer uncommonly dedicated to scrupulous self-searching, performed with clear-eyed honesty in private acts of language.  In his work, he often shows us how words can harm and haunt us; through the example his living work provides, he shows how words might redeem us yet.



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