I’m currently the longest serving member of the Kenosha Writer’s Guild, coming up on ten years since I attended the very first meeting, where the Guild was born.
These days, the Guild remains as vibrant and alive as it’s ever been. Membership has turned over several times, and with the departure of many seemingly indispensable members, there have been lean times where we wondered if we were going belly up. But it seems like each departure has been followed by fresh and talented new faces with energies that have reinvigorated the Guild. It’s all a part of the evolution of what we were to what we are. I am still honored to be a member of the group and take my role as a member of the Guild’s steering committee seriously, as we branch out into new and exciting landscapes.
Over the years, we’ve lost about as many people as we’ve gained. Some quickly concluded that we weren’t their exact cup of tea and some relocated, to places as far away as the United Kingdom and New York. Others have had career changes. Some who’ve left have and will return again and sadly, we’ve been around long enough that some won’t, not because they might not want to, but because they can’t. So it is with every family – eventually, there will be an empty chair at the dinner table.
The second longest serving member is my good friend, the extraordinarily gifted writer and visual artist, Darleen Coleman. Darleen has been a member since the second meeting, or one fewer meetings than I have attended. I make a point to never let her forget that compared to me, she’s just a newbie.
A hobby of Darleen’s is collecting “junk,” or “junking.” Her passion for junk frequently leads her to estate sales.
So it was when she happened to stop by an estate sale a couple of months ago only to discover that the estate was that of Marguerite Mclelland, a member of the guild up until her death in 2015. Marguerite was born in 1943 in the Alsace Lorraine area on the border of France and Germany. In other words, she was born at the intersection of the chronological and geographic epicenters of World War two. She never knew her father, who was killed on the eastern front before she was born.
We in the guild didn’t get to know Marguerite until 2013 or 2014, when she joined our little group. We knew her as an utterly charming and good -natured woman who was also a very talented writer of poetry and prose. She published a book about her childhood memories, “Stories from the War.” It’s a very well written collection of poetry and prose, of which you can hear some KWG members reading from here:
Darleen was quite surprised that the estate she was checking out was none other than Marguerite’s. Knowing this, and remembering Marguerite’s passion for poetry, she couldn’t resist paying a couple of bucks for the thin paper-backed collection of poems and prose entitled “Ginsberg Speaks.” Published in 1983, it contains about 35 pages of work by local writers, with its centerpiece being an interview with Allen Ginsberg by the Kenosha writer, Michael Schumacher. When Darleen got home with the book, she opened it up and was surprised to see, in the table of contents, several poems attributed to another last name she recognized: “Gourdoux.”
I’d forgotten that my oldest brother, Mike, used to dabble in poetry. I’d forgotten about the pamphlet that published his poems. All I know is I didn’t understand very much about poetry at the time. It turns out there were plenty of other things I didn’t understand, either.
Mike was the oldest of four children. I was third, born a little more than six years after Mike. Growing up, he always seemed light years older than me. He also seemed to be, as far back as I can remember, the smartest person I ever knew. My interests closely followed his, and as his broadened, so did mine. First was professional sports, then music, rock and roll, then movies, and then books.
In 1971, a year after graduating high school, and after finishing a couple of semesters at UW-Parkside, he signed up for a three year stint in the Army, coming home in October of 1974. Those years, between 1970 and 1975, when I was between 12 and 17 years old, were the closest we’d ever be. In those years, he openly shared with me all of his knowledge about the aforementioned topics and more, including philosophy, the subject he’d changed his major to. To this day, I owe my love for those things to Mike.
One thing he didn’t share with me that I had no clue of until years later was his considerable expertise in substance abuse. What started out as a mild curiosity in high school, in the army, in Germany, exploded into a major obsession, and he experimented with just about everything.
Sometime around 76, things changed. Mike was still living at home, and I was growing up. Mike was having trouble holding on to a job, and he was going to school, pursuing his philosophy degree. It was around this time that he essentially moved out of our shared room to a room in the basement, where he consumed case after case of Andeker beer. We grew apart, into our own and separate corridors of loneliness, neither one of us realizing how much we needed each other, how much we could have and should have been helping each other. Instead, we put miles between us, Mike taking a couple of Kerouac inspired trips to California and me moving to and working in northwestern Wisconsin.
In December of 79, after being laid off from my job at the window factory up north , I returned home, got a job, and signed up for night school, where I met my everything. In 1981, I married her; in 84, I started what would turn out to be a career in I.T. Between 1985 and 1994 my wife gave birth to our three children.
Mike, meanwhile, continued to struggle. For a brief time he had a job in California digging out swimming pools. He’d return home and spend months at my parents’ property in Northwestern Wisconsin. In the early eighties, when he wrote the poems Darleen found, he was living a hermit-like existence in a cold and unending winter. Meanwhile, with a demanding job, a growing family, and some 330 miles between us, I didn’t have much time for Mike, but when we did get together, the spaces between us would fade and vanish and we’d discuss the Packers, Nietzsche, Jack London, and whatever else we felt like tapping into. He was such a great guy. Anyone who spent time with him knew that, and would leave feeling better than before they arrived.
Sometime in the late 80s or early 90s, Mike was diagnosed with depression. I heard the word but I didn’t appreciate the extent of its meaning. Looking back on it now, I wonder how I couldn’t understand the pain he was living with, and I wonder how alone he must have felt while I went back to my family, my wife and kids.
I’m not self-centered enough to think that I caused Mike’s death. There are multiple specifics that I know directly contributed. But while I may not have caused his suicide in 2010, I did nothing to prevent it, either.
Now, my kids are grown and have left home. I have nothing but time, time to remember, and time to forget. There is so much I could learn if Mike were still alive.
In recent months, thanks to the encouragement of several members of the guild, I’ve become interested in reading and especially writing poetry. When Darleen gave me the book she bought at Marguerite’s estate sale, I realized that Mike and I once again shared a common interest, and that, as usual, he’d developed a deeper understanding of the form than I probably ever will.
It’s so easy for me to see now in his poems what I couldn’t see the first time I read them, back in the mid- eighties. Now when I read them, with the added weight of regret and time, they reverberate with despair and anguish and beauty that is overwhelming in its sadness:
My night bird is an owl
and flies with the borealis and the stars
to look down upon them
from the static of their antennae skies.
It sits in dark lamp-lit rooms
with books on shelves
and remembers a shadowy figure
standing by a river in the woods.
Back when I was a teenager, I remember Mike telling me that one of his favorite bands was Ten Years After, and one of his favorite albums was their masterpiece, “A Space in Time.” While the album includes a lot of great deep tracks, the best remains the justifiably famous “I’d Love to Change the World.”
Now, in 2019, approaching ten years after Mike’s death, I’d love to change the world and go back to a space in time where Mike still lives.