Isaac Kirkman wasn't a poet. He was a poem...
Updated: Jan 8, 2020
The last time I spoke to my dear soul friend, poet/shaman/spirit warrior Isaac Kirkman, we were lamenting the fact that he hadn't had a chance to do Tarot readings--he did them in amazing detail--for my as yet unborn granddaughter.
This weekend, as that granddaughter was on her way into this world, Isaac suddenly, but not entirely unexpectedly, left it. The details of his passing are sketchy at best, still and I wouldn't share them here even if I knew them.
Having lost one eye and suffered the excruciating and endless pain of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome his entire life...I think he was just ready.
In fact, I've also told friends that I am quite sure that the little spirit arriving and the elder spirit leaving probably crossed paths and had quite a conversation before continuing their journeys. I wouldn't have put it past that man to choose this particular time to take that journey.
Brother, this Native flute song, which I hope will be played on the day I join you, is called "Arrival" and I know, now, why I chose it even before I knew you. Fly away home with it...
The coming and going, both, have me too preoccupied for a long look back at our remarkable if all too brief...well, it was more than a friendship. I just don't have a word for it. We were like mother and son sometime, father and daughter sometimes, sister and brother sometimes...whatever we needed to be at the time.
But only a few weeks after I first saw him at an open mic poetry gathering here in Tucson, I wrote a HuffPo piece about what I had witnessed--after I'd recovered enough to find the right words.
Now, I'm going to repost that below. But I URGE you to listen to Isaac speak to you in his own words, from a podcast on a site called Tucsonense which is to this day one of the most magical things I have ever been spellbound by.
Isaac refused to drive and walked, even on the hottest of Arizona summer days, everywhere he went for reasons perhaps only a poet/shaman/spirit warrior could ever understand.
But in the podcast, he talks about that and soooo much more in that Isaac way that made you feel as if you were in the presence of some...thing...unlike any other thing in this world. A conversation with Isaac was not just a conversation. It was a "conjuring" of sorts.
That is why I had to write about him after I first saw him. And that article is the best way for me to pay tribute to him now, I think.
Read on, dear reader.
You'll be filled with enough good juju to take you righteously right on through 2020:
Author Isaac Kirkman: Making Art From Obstacles
The Words on the Avenue audience had snapped and stomped and finally just stood as one after he’d spit the last lines. And Kirkman, resplendent in flowered suit, black gloves, divine bling, seemed almost as mesmerized as we were.
He’d taken us far, far away from the patio where we sat beneath boughs strung with twinkly white lights. And we weren’t entirely sure we wanted to come back.
Because he had told us:
I’m from where the dead vomit red clay in a seashell splatter, of kudzu and black confetti, where you can hear the sound of slave chains in the soft foam of surf crashing onto Charleston’s shores, as little white kids with confederate flags flapping from their bikes, ride happily into the sun dreaming of the day the south shall rise again. See, I’m from where plantations turned into prisons the way HIV turns into AIDS. And every cop is a doctor trained to prescribe bullets to black children and call it the cure.
And he had told us:
That there was time when you were all poems spreading your ink through the blank page of yours mothers womb. Tiny little vowels blinking awake. Tiny little kicks bending out from the soft curve of your spines like calligraphy. I remember when each of you were a haiku dreaming of what kind of novel you’d grow up to be.
And he’d embraced us, in his last poem, with:
...I hope... ...that I inspire a smile or a second glance, as our eyes meet in a crowd rushing separate ways in a busy intersection. A moment warm enough to hold us over another million more transmigrations that divide our next brief reunion. And if denied this final reunion, and we only cross each other’s paths as strangers to never see each other again, I hope I cross your path on your way to a good memory.
What do you do with all that, all at once? I sent copies of the poems I’d heard to
She spent hours, the day she received them, reading the lines out loud, over and over and over again. And concluded that, “...he should always have the last word,” at events like that.
I knew I was right.
Those poems come in part from what he sees as he walks the world—Isaac does not drive. He has never driven. He prefers to wander on foot, finding stories, seeing sights that he can spin into poems.
That mode of transportation is especially difficult for a man recovering from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. EDS is a hellish collection of physical issues caused by a lack of collagen, the “glue” that keeps our connective tissues flexible. It causes loose, unstable joints, weak muscles, fragile skin, and, less frequently, scoliosis, mitral valve collapse and arterial or intestinal ruptures.
Isaac is undeterred, perhaps even inspired by this. In one of the many emails we exchanged over the next few weeks—a tête-à-tête had spun gleefully out of control—he said:
“It is an aspect of me, but it does not define me. I view it as spiritual lesson from my creator to strengthen my spirituality, gratitude, and empathy through pain. I don’t ever feel like I am really in my body. I am a ghost.”
He learned to defy “definition” as a child in Greenville, South Carolina, a world where “the Civil War never ended.” A world where “My classmates hunted and chewed dip and wore confederate flag shirts and viewed the black race as an abomination and treated them as such.”
“I was an alien to this world,” he said. “And was treated like one. Bullied. Humiliated. But I was determined to write my way to a better life. I would write my way to freedom.”
He would have the last word on that world, too. In Opiate Haloes a short story published in the summer issue of Waxwing, Kirkman unleashes a posse of pill popping teens, most ravaged by illness, to exact apocalyptic revenge upon their foes in a macabre backwoods world. They are the Red Band Society from Hell.
And he knows Hell personally. He lived in it, a troubled teen on the streets, for a time. A time of drugs and drink and danger. And again, he wrote his way through it.
“I always had a notebook on me,” he said. “Writing on the couch as my friends sold drugs out the front door, sleeping outside writing in my pad, writing descriptions of the junkies and the outlaws, writing metaphors to capture the agony of the ghetto, and the ecstasy of God.”
After a move to Tucson, he took his first and only writing class at the local WritersStudio. He also got sober, one substance at a time. And the words, through it all, kept coming.
“I never gave up on writing because it was my destiny,” he said. “Because I had to tell the stories of the forgotten. I didn’t come to this through academics I came from my own grave. I’m just surfacing. I have been beaten humble and beaten pure.”
And so he walks the streets of Tucson in the scorching heat and torrential “monsoons,” leaving votive candles on shrines and the sites of recent homicides, “to pay respect to the spirits and religions of the barrios, honoring their losses as well as my own.”
And then, he writes. Always, he writes. Through pain both physical and emotional.
“There remain obstacles,” he said. “But I will make art from them.”
Photo credits: Tattoos, Chelsea Gleisner; Floral suit, Ezra Letra