When Jon Hassler died, he was the same age as my mother when she died. There's an intimacy of connection I feel.
Today is the last day of April; Jon's birthday was the last but one day of March-and I imagine he was pleased to know that his birth-date was a palindrome.
It is now forty days since he passed into God's eternity.
When Jon died, my wife's Lisa's bedtime reading was "A Green Journey." I have re-read that story these past few days up at the cabin; I was scarcely able to put it down. Such a wonderful, traditional urge, being so eager to know what was going to happen to those invented people!
I did not see Jon that often, but I was always so pleased when we met. I had great respect for him as a writer, great affection for him as a person. I knew he loved poetry, wrote poetry as well as prose. He seemed to me like an uncle, or perhaps more so a cousin-there were only seven years in age between us. He was such a kind, reliable presence. Such a gifted Elder.
I visited his classes a time or two here at St. John's. And on occasion, Jon turned up at one of my readings; I was always surprised, always honored. The last time I saw him, in November of 2005, he and Gretchen were sitting in the pews of the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis, listening to the open dress rehearsal of the oratorio To Be Certain of the Dawn, which was performed so magnificently in this very space just four days ago. To say again-I felt honored.
I liked a certain understatedness in him. You remember, I suppose, the definition of a Minnesota rave review: "Pretty nice." Well, quite some years ago, I sent Jon the draft of a children's story I was working, my first, a Christmas story called "The Jessica"; I wanted his opinion of it. He marked just a couple of details along the way, and on the last page he wrote: "I don't see anything wrong with it." The story remains unpublished; maybe he was being too generous to me. Those of you here who knew him well and loved him-is that possible, do you think?
At the visitation, I told Gretchen I would like to write a poem in honor of Jon for the memorial service and I told her the title was to be "The Death of the Author." Who knows where these things come from? Behind this text is, I suppose, is a line from Auden's elegy for Yeats, a poem I have always loved, in which he writes, "The death of the poet was kept from his poems," and also perhaps Edna St Vincent Millay's poem on the death of a poet, which ends with these lines: "No thing that ever flew, / Not the lark, not you, / Can die as others do."
Over the past few weeks, I've been have working on the words, and though they seem to me not quite done, I would like to read them to you now.
The Death of the Author
Jon Hassler, in memoriam
I hear the axe bite into the wood, I hear the echo, and owls calling from back down the hill as though it were one of their own being laid low.
I begin, as if I were blindfolded, as if I were dreaming, to hear axe-blades all over, rising, falling, rising, falling, suddenly every neighbor intent upon the task, and everywhere the beating of wings
I have never thought of the sky as lonely, filled as it is with so much we cannot see, but now geese paddle by and are gone, their cries creak like old trees, they fade like ink from the page and are gone. The page seems lonely.
News of the death of the author goes out; his own words do not know it, but we hear its long horn, the yapping of its hounds.
Not like any other, this death. We do not know where he has gone, except into beauty, and the beauty becomes ours to give back, if we can only know how, like him in his lifetime of knowing how.
The death of the author goes out into the hands of authors to come; as he labored at the page, so they do, so they will. Into the blood, into the sinews. The gold of his death goes into the green of the lives of the writers beyond him.
He has gone into silence; without that silence, no birds can be heard singing; without that silence, no page can be bare, no language grow. Into the strokes of ink to come.
The death of the author is not the death of the words, not the death of the vessel he became. That craft sails on.
Now it is all in the heart, what you can say to us, we to you. Now that your own dream has ended, more dreams have begun.
There is no gold, no green, like this death; all other colors are in them--of ocean, of leaves, of fields, of rivers, of sky-everything radiant within this this gold, this green, which is where you can speak to us, we to you.
Is there something we could not say to you then? We can be saying it now with the wildness of branches swaying, with the roaring of waves. Not knowing where you are now, except in the beauty, we can speak to you any hour, anywhere, out of that silence from in which, if we practice a lifetime of listening, you can speak back to us.
The gold, the green, dear author; the green, the gold. They are not done with each other. They will never be done.