We heard about the death of poet Marty Christensen, best known for his collection(s) “My Flashlight Was Attacked by Bats,” last week from poet/educator Leanne Grabel. We asked her if she could write something about him, and she agreed, asking fellow poet Doug Spangle to contribute some thoughts as well. Tonight at 7 p.m. there will be a memorial gathering for Christensen at the Three Friends Coffeehouse, 201 S.E. 12th Ave.
Here’s what Grabel and Spangle sent us.
First from Leanne:
born Astoria OR January 7, 1942
died Portland OR January 5, 2012
Marty Christensen died last week of pancreatic cancer. I heard he was in hospice a few days before Christmas. Lorna Viken, his wife, said they found out about the cancer in mid-August. Tried treatment, but Marty did not respond to it. Doctors told him he had 4-8 months. They moved him into a convalescent hospital on September 11. My husband Steve Sander and I went to Harvest Homes in North Portland to see him and were shocked at his frailty. He looked like a dying yellow man of at least 100. A bag of bones.
Poignantly, he thought he was the subject of a movie celebrating his life and his poetry. His collection “My Flashlight Was Attacked By Bats” was lying open on his hospital bed. He was concerned about going before the cameras that day. Lorna, his partner of over three decades, was sitting on a small couch in the spare room trying to re-attach him to reality. “There is no movie, Marty,” she said.
There were no books in the room, no plants. It was just a room. I asked them what they wanted, what they needed. Lorna said, “I want to read ‘Sometimes a Great Notion’ and ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ Never read them. And Marty wants an eggnog milkshake. I want eggnog.” So we came back the next day, which was Christmas Eve, with all of the above and a poinsettia. Steve helped Marty with the thick shake. He didn’t have the strength to get it through the straw. He took two sips and that was it.
Marty gave his last poetry reading about a year ago at Three Friends Coffeehouse in SE Portland . The reading was devastating. Marty fumbled with papers, mumbled his poems. The audience of old friends squirmed and tried to avoid each other’s glances of dismay. The audience who didn’t know who Marty was (or had been) just looked embarrassed. I hadn’t seen the guy for maybe a decade. Or maybe I saw him, but crossed the street to avoid him. It was hard to be around Marty. He was usually very drunk, very loud, and he, shall I say, perseverated on things until you wanted to tape his mouth shut.
I first met Marty and Lorna over 30 years ago at the Mediterranean tavern. He was brilliantly insightful and wry, albeit obnoxious. His readings were full of humor and poetic brilliance. He reminded me of Jack Benny, with his thick glasses and well-placed, stretched-to-the-edge pauses. And his heart was huge and kind. It was a time in my life when I made a lot of wrong decisions about men, walked around with a tattered heart. Marty was always there to soothe me. With his acerbic wit, he would verbally destroy my horrid men, ripping them a new lyrical asshole…so to speak.
Poets have a tendency to self-destruct. We all know this. Why? Because in order to be a real poet, you have to strip off all the defenses, over and over again. You have to walk through life as naked as you can to really feel it, see it, know it. At least, that’s my theory. And it’s cold out there with no clothes. It’s abrasive. It can kill you.
Yes, Marty’s down. But his work will live on. The poems are gems. They’re funny and they’re true…
I am just jogging
with my pants down
still aiming for the world.
by Doug Spangle
I just heard last night that Marty Christensen cashed in—not that it was a surprise exactly; we’d heard that he was in hospice. He was just a tad shy of seventy, but nobody expected him to last this long. All of us mortals are looking over our shoulders, and there’s a sense of an era ending, at least in the little world of poetry.
He came by way of Astoria, a town whose main pastimes seem to have always been alcoholism, depression and suicide. He elected to leave that sort of thing to the amateurs, and came to the big city for more risky game: plying his genius for poetry amid the fleshpots of Portland.
And so he took his place as part of the heady scene of the Sixties and Seventies (and further), along with this city’s finest: Walt Curtis, Katherine Dunn, John Shirley; he careened wildly among the venues that wouldn’t pitch a poet forthwith out on his ear. This is what passes for our artistic heritage. Wherever Marty neared, sphincters would tighten among the punters who were responsible for doling out bits of Art to the masses.
No matter. It was the Age of the Mimeograph and DIY presentation. Marty had teamed up with the Lovely Lorna, in what must be one of the most enduring relationships the artistic world has ever seen. They saw into print Marty’s literary progeny: a handful of broadsides, chapbooks and folios, culminating in 2003 with “My Flashlight Was Attacked by Bats,” a more or less complete collection of Marty’s poems.
This book is a must-have. Marty’s poetry is both twisted and pithy, utterly loony and deeply elegant at the same time, brief enough to write on the back of a matchbook yet covering a multitude of emotional states. I’d have to share a couple of his verses to illustrate this (all from the aforementioned collection).
You are a plum tree moving
towards the mountains.
Liberated, you are a jade flute
used only in the highest
mayan ceremonies. I guess
about the only american
whose tastes are truly French.
you could be a jukebox.
I could be a dime.
Scientists, working for Adolph Hitler,
succeeded somehow in transforming 500
pineal glands into one enormous freak, who
to this day lives on, above the Alps, where
he lies bleeding in a thousand languages.
Recently, carried by a southern wind, globs
of his spit dropped onto Texas lawns whose
owners swore the “blobs” were still growing
hours later. Isaac Asimov, scientific expert
called in by the government, was heard on tv
to make this remark…Oh my God, Oh my God. For
nestling in the phlegm was something enigmatic.
THE WRONG PROFESSION
I am tired of being an insane poet.
I want to drive around in a big cigar.
IN THIS POEM
There is an imaginary ocean. Not a
merely magical lake: a vast exhausted ocean
which can barely even undulate
its aches and pains around much anymore.
Overhead the pockmarked corpse of the moon
is starting to shed dandruff. Almost all
these specks of manna will disintegrate
into that unsteady lawn of spindrift tears.
But, some of those flakes may crystallize
and harden into diamonds sparkling like dew.
Only by then they could be a million fathoms down
so even if you did find one you probably would drown.