Terril Shorb's tribute to Brautigan
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This Fisher of Words Had Many a Winning Catch

by Terril Shorb?

I sit on a narrow beach below Bolinas?, facing the ocean. It is Sunday, nearly a week since they found the body of Richard Brautigan in his house on the yellow sandstone cliffs above me.

It is cold. Fog so thick and low it catches in my throat. It presses over this bowl of ocean like a flat Tupperware lid, raised up a little at a far corner where a thin wedge of blue sky leaks in above the low hills of San Francisco and its well-combed rows of houses. Somewhere, a seagull cries. A sono-buoy moans invisibly offshore. Waves wrapped in white foam shawls throw themselves on the wet sand like distraught widows.

I came here, I guess, to see if I could salvage something of him: find some vestige of him reflected in the purple eyes of ice plant blossoms or cradled in the muscular orange arms of Eucalyptus trees. Perhaps I might discern trembling grey lips of sea mutely forming and reforming his name.

I have been sitting here for hours, but the day seems maddeningly indifferent, like a sleeping grey cat dreaming on its own tail. What am I waiting for? For all the libraries to lower their poetry collections to half mast? For my native Montana and my adoptive California to start fighting over credit for his poetic inspirations?

What's all this rage inside, and who am I to speak about Richard Brautigan anyway?

The rage, I decide, is at myself. Poets seldom seek payment for the truths they extract, at such great peril, from the deep mines of the human soul. But we should thank them for being able to build engines of understanding from the ore of their pain. I should have put down these feelings years ago before I left Montana. I should have written them down and pinned them to the skinny white bulletin board of an Aspen tree outside Richard Brautigan's Pine Creek ranch house. Who am I to speak of him? Who am I NOT to? I am one of the many who not only read Richard Brautigan, but learned to see with him as well.

For me, Richard Brautigan was Lewis and Clark, joyously navigating the wily waters of human experience to map the craggy continental contours of life. Along the way he did a lot of fishing. He could bait a hook with words that wriggled so enticingly with insight, it was irresistible. I don't think it was his aim to eat his catch, but merely to jerk it up into the bright surprising air so it could marvel at the beauty of the sunlit rainbow glowing on its own ribs.

Thanks to Richard Brautigan, this shy Montana ranch kid saw the shining rainbow of his own possibilities.

I still don't know how he did it. But he did it. He was a wizard of words. A Merlin of magical metaphor. He could take words as quiet as the neighbor next door and make them sing and dance, cajole and taunt. One poem might reach out for you sweet as a lover. The next might make you feel as if you had left the longjohns of your innocence hanging out on the line during a hailstorm of sawblades.

With his supple sentences and fragrant phrases, Richard Brautigan could tie his shoes with rainbows, comb his hair with the cold blue teeth of wind. He could stitch a cloud to a cliff with crowfeathers and spider spit. He could gargle stars, carry a faded river folded up in his wallet, invite you to a picnic of insight on the dainty red tablecloth of a hummingbird's heartbeat.

No one made me fear words more, or love them more. He has given me a wild hope that equipped with the right meaningful words, we humans might yet talk ourselves out of annihilation. For giving me that hope, I will always be glad I rose to his blessed bait.

Maybe if I would have told him this those long years ago in Montana when we were neighbors across the blue snowdrifts ... maybe if all the others who loved his words would have told him ... maybe, maybe, maybe ... taken together, all the maybes are as useful now as trying to climb a cloud with a ladder made of rubber bands.

In his best-known book, "Trout Fishing In America," there is one passage which reads, "I've lost every trout I ever hooked. They either jump off, or twist off, or squirm off, or break my leader. I believe it was an interesting experiment in total loss, but next year somebody else will have to go trout fishing."

Well, Richard, you should know that it was by no means a total loss. You hooked a lot of us. And, wherever you are, I hope there's a fine stream running deep and clear and fast. And I hope they're biting.

Billings Gazette?
December 7, 1984, D4

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