Someone is knocking on the door.
—Señor Aragón, le llaman por teléfono, calls the voice outside my room.
—Un momento, I reply, sitting now on the edge of the bed. The window next to the headboard looks out onto a plaza: on the far side…Tirso de Molina. The statue an homage to the Baroque dramatist and Roman Catholic monk. Mid-morning late June and already it’s so hot I’ll be soaking a clean t-shirt in the sink again; wringing it out before I put it on; walk down several flights of stairs to the ground floor. I’ll feel the damp cotton on my skin drying in Madrid’s arid heat, keeping me cool while I walk to a café. I’ve recently completed an M.A. in Spanish, have been scouring El País for teaching jobs. I won’t be returning to California.
As an undergrad at UC Berkeley I married my love for the language with my love for the story, the play, my love for the essay, the poem. Which is to say, I majored in Spanish literature. My advisor was one John K. Walsh. If pressed, I would venture, he is one of the reasons I write.
I oversimplify, of course, yet there I am: seated on the other side of his orderly desk, the ground floor of Dwinelle Hall during his office hours. I need his signature. I may have read somewhere that he was a medievalist, which means he knows, El Libro de Buen Amor—an excerpt of which I’ll soon be laboring through in a survey of peninsular lit. But when Professor Walsh, a soft-spoken, handsome man in his late forties, casually utters “Federico García Lorca,” I straighten up, lean forward and ask a question, and then another.
The year prior—the fall of 1985 to be precise—I had taken a class called, “Introduction to Poetry Writing,” and joined the staff of the Berkeley Poetry Review. Though my course of studies went undeclared for nearly three years, as a student of writing I was very fortunate where teachers were concerned. But it was Professor Walsh who first took me seriously as an aspiring artist—long before I took myself seriously. I was barely twenty. The only thing I knew when I stepped onto a college campus was that I wanted to spend a year of my studies in a Spanish-speaking country.
Again I’m in his office, that chair: my mouth slightly ajar, I’m leafing through stapled photocopies of Lorca’s “Sonetos del amor oscuro,” all eleven of them, pausing at each, lingering, as well, at Professor Walsh’s English versions which, almost involuntarily, I start to revise and tweak in my head.
By the summer of 1987, the summer before my year of study abroad, Professor Walsh had taken me under his wing as his co-translator of these “Sonnets of Dark Love.” I had declared Spanish as my major. Under his tutelage I had begun to focus not only on the poet executed by firing squad at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, but his co-hort, too: la generación del ’27.
That summer was when I met the man I took to be Professor Walsh’s partner. He was also a Spanish professor, but at Hofstra University back east on Long Island. Having both spent much time in Spain over the years, Walsh and his partner, over a meal, offered to give me a primer on certain aspects of Madrid; I happily accepted. Madrid was where I’d be spending a five-week orientation before boarding a bus to Barcelona for the start of the academic year.
The primer started with a bar. As they had described, I would soon spot the gold, oblong plaque, “Dumbarton” engraved on its smooth face, situated just beside a nondescript door, a discreet button next to it. You had to press it, wait to be buzzed in. And as they had indicated, the establishment was indeed on a narrow street directly behind Las Cortes—Spain’s version of Congress. Dumbarton would be the first gay bar I ever set foot in.
The primer also included Paseo de Recolletos—that stretch of pedestrian bliss: many a night for years to come, I’d go for a stroll. If it were late spring, summer, or early autumn, I might sit on a bench on the Paseo, my back to the traffic, opposite a terraza, from where I’d observe Madrileños sip coffee in the open air—most often the sidewalk terrace of metal tables and chairs outside El Gran Café Gijón.
Walsh had become, perhaps without realizing it, a role model of sorts for this mostly closeted kid in college. In addition to his highly regarded work on medieval saints, I soon came to learn that Walsh was one of the few scholars who pioneered exploring the homoerotic in Lorca. For Walsh, I came to believe, carrying out this work was one way of saying, This is who I am. In similar fashion, he’d had no qualms about introducing me to his partner, his “friend”—without dwelling on labels. He simply introduced him by name. Billy.
He in Berkeley, me in Barcelona, Walsh and I exchanged a few letters. I especially remember one—in which he shared that he had gone to see, and thoroughly enjoyed hearing, August Kleinzahler read his poetry in Wheeler Hall. He had remembered that Kleinzahler was one of my favorite poets. For my part, I was living, studying, traveling around and falling in love with, Spain. I still held out the unrealistic hope that he and Billy might make it there before I had to return to the Berkeley campus for a fifth and final year to fulfill breadth requirements, graduate.
There we are, seated, after my return: the Northside Café on Hearst, a marble table top between us, blocks from his flat on Hilgard just off Euclid on the north side of campus. My last two semesters in college I’m a commuter student. After a year overseas, and after three years in a co-op on the south side of campus before that, “being away at college” felt done. Instead, I live at home and, for the first time really, live in San Francisco as an adult. I drive my mother’s car around the City. I go to the bars. To get to class during the week I take BART.
I don’t remember when or how I came to call him “Jack.” What I do remember is that any time we met for coffee, lunch, or sometimes dinner, he would invariably ask about my writing. He always managed to insert a tidbit of encouragement about my poetry, not any homework assignment for a class I was taking. It was always my poems, my art, that he made sure to quiz me about. And it was also during this year that I really got to know Billy. Between a leave of absence that fall semester (1988) and a sabbatical in the spring (1989), he spent most of this time in Berkeley—looking after Jack, who’d been diagnosed with AIDS.
Thus, it was a bittersweet year. I served as Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Berkeley Poetry Review. And I made it known to Jack that I wanted to explore heading back to Europe. So he put “NYU in Spain” on my radar, a one year M.A. program in Spanish that offered two thesis options: a work of literary scholarship, or a project in literary translation. This latter option rendered the program perfect. Jack wrote, arguably, the most consequential letter of recommendation anyone has ever written for me—one which paved the way for my return to a place that would be home from 1989 to 1998. Madrid.
The knocking on the door awakens me.
—Señor Aragón, le llaman por teléfono.
—Un momento, I reply, sitting now on the edge of the bed.
During the years I lived in Spain, my mother had the custom of phoning on Sundays, usually in the early evening. But that mid-morning in June, 1990, just after completing my degree with NYU, and resolving that I would not be returning to California, I wasn’t expecting her call. When I heard her voice on the other end of the line as I stood in the hallway of a hostel, the phone attached to the wall, the receiver in my hand, I somehow knew, and felt, that she was bearing sad, though not unexpected, news.
In 1999, the year after I returned to California after my long-time residence in Spain, I went for a walk in Jack’s Berkeley neighborhood, past a shuttered storefront that had been our café—that marble table top between us, solid as solid can be, during my last year in college.
The Northside Cafe
re-visiting Berkeley, 1999
Café, where we
since I felt
etched in glass;
recalling it now:
your front door,
hallway where we
headed for Spain
the next morning
set to live
your absence in,
have felt it all
my focus blurred—
This is the penultimate poem in Puerta del Sol (2005), my first book—a book Jack never held in his hands. Re-reading it, after all these years, prompts me to hone in on one passage. It prompts re-visiting, as well, another poem of mine, “The Slide,” published in Glow of Our Sweat (2010), my second book—the book I dedicated to Jack. Though these two poems appeared in volumes that were published five years apart, both are set in the summer of 1989.
I’d just graduated from college and was poised to return to Spain. Jack’s diagnosis earlier that year was still a very palpable presence in my psyche, though it was a comfort knowing that Billy was spending the summer in Berkeley before he had to return to New York to teach.
Living in the city, it was the summer of my daily walks up 24th Street, through Noe Valley, and then the hike up to a modest summit, from where I could see clear across to the East Bay. It was the summer of The NAMES Project. Also known as the AIDS quilt, this was a grass-roots initiative that remembered lives lost to the disease, each person memorialized in a 6’ x 3’ panel of vivid art, stitched by loved ones. I first became aware of it during my walks along upper Market, passing a storefront that was the NAMES Project’s early home. The first 40 panels were displayed in June of 1987 from the Mayor’s balcony in San Francisco. Four months later (as I began my year in Barcelona), it would debut on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where it would be displayed again in the coming years on a handful of occasions, including in 1996 when it was visited by President Clinton.
But that summer, in 1989, it was at the George Moscone Convention Center. The image of it—vast mosaic of bright, human-sized rectangles of folk art—insinuated itself into “The Slide.” At the end of the third stanza the speaker starts to contemplate the sweeping vistas from Kite Hill:
The patchwork of the city
starts at my feet, reaching
the wide stitch of the bay,
and across it a friend
and his fever, his cough.
I distinctly remember, after wandering for hours on the floor of the convention center—football field after football field of brightly stitched and embroidered names—thinking about Jack, who was across the bay. I remember that I was seeing less of him because the academic year had concluded. I’d occasionally call to say hello to both him and Billy and hear an occasional report about night sweats, fever, a lingering cough. The few conversations we had that summer were circumspect when it came to the subject of his condition.
“The Slide,” when I re-read it today, seems to also be very much about Jack. Yes, there is a literal “slide” in the poem, a slide from my childhood that I and a friend slid down. But from this vantage point, it seems to also signal Jack’s “slide” from stable to less stable health (“and across it a friend // and his fever, his cough.”).
At summer’s end, Billy had to return to New York, and I had to pack. I arranged to see Jack, to visit with him in his flat, the day before I’m to fly to Madrid to start my Masters program.
What mostly survives is that we said our goodbyes in the hallway near his front door, that we hugged, and that I noticed, and remember noticing, flowers etched in the frosted panes. When I shut the door behind me and walked down the stairs to start my trek to the BART station, I realized, I may not see Jack again.
I now feel there is a something of a false note in “The Northside Café.” Written ten years after the event being depicted, it reads
headed for Spain
the next morning
set to live
I did not know how much longer Jack was going to live. The poem says “two / semesters” because the poem was conceived nine years after Jack’s death—that is: with hindsight knowledge that Jack had, in a manner of speaking, two semesters to live. But it feels too neat and tidy today—the “you” rhyming with “two.” Was it a case of my feeling pleased with myself for coming up with this clever sonic solution to convey a specific passage of time? The future is unknown to us, always. And so “set to live” underscores, in my mind, this false note. The poem, I think, aptly memorializes that final moment at his front door, but I don’t think it fully comprehends the role Jack was playing in my life.
In fact, I’ve come to believe that the significance of Jack Walsh’s mentorship is not static. It is still evolving. At the time, I had a general notion that I would continue to write and translate poetry while obtaining that NYU degree. But not a whole lot more. I had no idea that the M.A. year in Madrid would serve as a prelude to eight additional years beyond that. Instead, I thought I’d get the Masters and, in the process, get Spain out of my system. I’d return to the United States and maybe pursue a doctorate in Spanish, become a Spanish professor…like Jack?
Did he see or detect something in me that I didn’t? It occurs to me now that his questions and encouragement were always only about my writing, and framed in such a way as if to suggest that a life in letters were a perfectly reasonable vocation. Not a life of literary scholarship—his life; but rather, writing the stuff literary scholars pore over. As I’ve said, he never asked me how my coursework for the Spanish major was coming along. He only asked about, and encouraged, my poetry writing.
And so some questions percolate nearly twenty-five years after his death. Is it possible that Jack had wanted to be a writer himself? Was the encouragement he offered, during the time he knew me, the typical encouragement a mentor would offer a student? Or was it, perhaps, a kind of encouragement a father might offer a son, as well? These are questions nobody can answer of course. They also suggest I didn’t wholly grasp Jack’s mentoring while I was experiencing it.
One of my deepest regrets was that he and I never tread Spanish soil together. I try and imagine what it might have been like to spend time with him there: the conversations we might have had, the stories he might have shared about his time there as a student, a scholar…an aspiring writer? What it might have been like to wander the Prado and see, with him, el Cristo de Velazquez…a pinnacle in my experience with visual art.
I board the Metro at Farragut West. My stop is Capitol South, from where I’ll walk towards the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress (LOC). I am meeting a student for lunch nearby. She is interning at the LOC’s Hispanic Division. She is one of four doing summer stints, students I am overseeing. They are undergraduates at the University of Notre Dame. I meet with them every other week to discuss readings I’ve selected and assigned, readings that touch upon aspects of Latinidad, especially as it pertains to the Latino community in Washington, D.C. Although we’ve been gathering in a classroom setting, I decide—mid-way through the summer—to take each of them to lunch, a more informal space to learn how things are going, to prep them a bit for their final presentations, to ask about their plans after they graduate.
This past year I learned that Jack’s undergraduate degree was from the University of Notre Dame. Notre Dame has been a home of sorts for me since 2001—first as a graduate student pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in poetry, and then as a faculty member at the Institute for Latino Studies.
I have reached my late forties while affiliated with Jack’s undergraduate institution. He was inhis late forties when I stepped into his office at UC Berkeley nearly thirty years ago. It feels both gratifying and daunting: the idea that I might aspire to mentor someone…as Jack continues to mentor me. These and related thoughts linger, the image of Jack Walsh seated across a table, as my student and I begin to converse over a meal.
for Billy Thompson
Francisco Aragón is the author of Glow of Our Sweat and Puerta del Sol, as well as the editor of The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry. In addition to a number of anthologies, his poems have appeared in various literary journals, most recently, Great River Review, Mandorla: New Writing from the Americas, and MiPoesías. Aragón is a faculty member at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies (ILS), where he directs Letras Latinas, the ILS’ literary initiative, from where he’s currently overseeing “PINTURA : PALABRA, a project in ekphrasis”—in tandem with the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s traveling exhibit, “Our America: the Latino Presence in American Art.” A native of San Francisco, he spends fall semester in South Bend, IN, and spring and summer in Washington, D.C. Visit his website at here.