CRYSTA CASEY

CRYSTA CASEY
MAY 27, 1952 – JUNE 24, 2008

My pal Crysta Casey died in 2008, after a battle with lung cancer.

I remember Crysta from 1971 as a 19-year-old at SUNY Stony Brook. She hid me in her apartment on Quaker Path when I was banned from campus for anti-war demonstrations, just as she did in 1999 (some things never change!) during the week of anti-WTO protests in Seattle, where Crysta had moved a couple of decades before. She still wore denim overalls like a train engineer.

I still remember her first poem. “I can’t write poetry,” she’d tell me … until she actually wrote one, and immediately the images burned through the page. She wrote it “as an experiment” in a poetry workshop we were both taking at Stony Brook, about her first time in a gay bar on Long Island where she’d met her friend Jessica. We mimeographed it and included it in the Red Balloon Poetry Conspiracy packets. She was floored by that.

Crysta was a chronicler of the small details of everyday life, in poetry, prose and in the water-color paintings she churned out later in her life. Her paintings included many of what appeared to be the same chair. When I visited her in Seattle, I saw that it was the chair she sat in all night long rocking herself and typing on her manual typewriter.

CRYSTA CASEY SELF PORTRAIT

She sent me hundreds of rewrites of the same poem about the Marine Corps, where she was raped and where her best friend, Sgt. Sanchez, was murdered by other Marines, a scene eerily similar to that in the movie “A Few Good Men”. What was this antiwar stalwart doing in the Marine Corps anyway? What was she trying to prove?

At the psych ward in the V.A. hospital, where she was periodically committed, she painted pictures in terse lines of the damaged souls she found there and commiserated with. She was always trying to get off her meds; she told me she couldn’t write on them, she was not able to approach that edge that she felt she needed. So she’d force herself off them to recapture that edge. But then, of course, she wouldn’t want to go back on’m, and all sorts of hell would break loose.

For a decade my phone in Brooklyn would ring a few times a month at 4 a.m., and I knew it was Crysta even before hearing her raspy, twinkling voice, rocking in her non-rockable chair wanting to run her latest poem by me. She’d sit up all night rocking back and forth in her supposedly stationary hard-backed chair, staring out, thinking, rhythming, night after night after night. Her phone calls would arrive in the course of this, and I’d ask her what she was doing. “Rocking,” was always her answer. That’s when she was happiest. Smoking cigarettes and rocking.

We were great helpful critics of each others’ work. Every poem she wrote, even the most hum-drum (and she liked writing about hum-drum subjects, the small things in everyday life) contained at least one image, or one peculiar and insightful phrasing that never failed to stun me. I learned early on that it was worth wading through page after page of her roughly worded or not-quite-grabbed ideas in order to get to that one reality-changing image or construct that would change my eyes and shake free the cobwebs from my brain.

One of those poems was about Tony’s finger. Tony was a co-worker of Crysta’s doing outdoor work in the Parks Department, whose finger was cut-off — the safety switch was broken — in the machinery they were both working with. Over and over again, she relived those friendships through her poems, each re-write paring down this or that word that she felt was extraneous.

It was a trip to hear Crysta read her own work, the struggle, the slightly slurred meds-induced speech, the strong caustic and yet love-filled enunciation, sort of like the wonderful experience listening to the Brooklyn-accented poet Enid Dame, a favorite of both of ours. Enid died at the end of 2003.

In her last 10 years, she took up water-colors and painted the same way she wrote, straightforward images from everyday life with always something slightly awry, some quirk that to her was normal but that would jolt realities. I’ve posted a few of the scores of Crysta’s poems she sent me, many of which we printed in Red Balloon. I’ll be adding more over the next few weeks. Take this run through them with me, won’t you?

As always, I invite your comments and stories.

There is also a lovely website devoted to Crysta and her work, at http://crystacasey.com .

Crysta’s last letter to me

Date: Mon, 24 Mar 2008
From: Crysta Casey
Subject: Re: Six Months to go

Hi Mitch,

I’ve been given the good ole six-month life span….course I’ve never died before (except once from a suicide attempt) so this is an adventure.

I have found a home for all my files. Deborah Woodard will also continue to try and get my completed manuscripts published, so I sleep peacefully at night knowing this. I will add your email to the list of people who should be notified when I die. It would be nice to see you of course, but it doesn’t look like either of us is travelling soon, so.

…Anyway, keep up the struggle for another fallen comrade…

love, crysta

*******************************************

FIRST GRADE, AUSTIN, 1958

We learned to stand straight as the posts
of empty mail boxes. We sang,
“The Eyes of Texas are Upon You,”
never, “The Star Spangled Banner.”

My best friend, Charlie, had been held back
two years, with this same teacher.
When my whispers rose above my breaths,
Mrs. Cooper put the newspaper dunce cap
on my head. I slouched in a corner
looking like Merlin without his magic.

In December, the janitor screwed
a speaker into a corner of the classroom.
Mrs. Cooper said Cheryl Anne couldn’t walk
to school because of polio, but we would hear
her voice. The teacher explained how sound travels
the air in waves.

Once, during recess, I threw a rubber ball
at Susan’s head. While the others played,
I sat in the corner wondering why
my arm did these things without me
telling it to,
when, “Are you alone?”
squeaked from the speaker box.
Cheryl Anne’s voice startled me
like the voice of the priest
during a first confessional. I asked,
“What do you look like?”

She said, “My head sticks out
of an iron lung. My hair is dark
brown. Below the neck,
my arms and legs don’t hear
anything I tell them.”

Cheryl Anne lived two houses away
from me. After school, I sat near a wheel
of her iron lung, listening, to the noise
of waves, the tide
of air being breathed,
sucked in and out of lungs.
I described the voices she heard
through the intercom on her bedroom wall.

We pretended it was I who couldn’t catch
my breaths. Cheryl Anne was the doctor.
Looking through the window
of her miniature space
ship, I had seen how her body flopped on the mattress
like a jellyfish stranded
on the beach. I flopped on her bedroom floor
in the gray iron lung
of imagination
that breathed for me when I tried
to hold my breath inside.
Cheryl Anne always made me
walk again.

I wondered how long she would live
without electricity. Her mother said
the portable lung had its own battery.
The portable looked like the shell
of the snapping turtle that returned
to a bush each spring. His mouth
didn’t snap at me,
unless I cornered him.

During Easter vacation, Cheryl Anne’s parents
laid her in the back
of the station wagon, the portable breathing
the stretch to San Antonio
for her, not far from the Alamo.
In the hospital, specialists broke her legs.
Her mother explained how nerves are shocked
into feeling, when they heal a break.

With Cheryl Anne gone,
I did chores Saturday morning, dragging
the vacuum into Saturday afternoon.
My mother couldn’t understand what took me
so long. I dragged the Hoover
shaped like a small iron lung,
over half the house, breathing
with each sweep of the vacuum brush.

********************************

NAVY REGIONAL MEDICAL CENTER: SHRINK WARD

The day room holds still.
Model cars, National Geographics
from the Fifties,
one hundred pieces
of a puzzle called “Tranquility.”
Painting by numbers.

On a shelf in the corner
I make a game: stack white,
blue and red poker chips
into a tower, knock it down with dice,
pile the chips again.
I load the bed of a plastic pickup
with pieces of the game “Clue,”
the noose, the candlestick,
Colonel Mustard and Mrs. Peacock.
The truck wheels are glued on,
they won’t move. We park
on the radiator, wheels
going nowhere,
till I feel the lines sagging
beneath my eyes.

Elbows bend over ears, eyes,
face down in the rectangle
of folded arms. I remember
the night at 2 a.m. in the transient room
where women slept
and air hissed through ventilators.
“All is well,” I thought.
“Maybe not,” caught between my teeth
like a bit of cob. I had posed
in my friend Sergeant Sanchez’s room
while he clicked the shutter
until he ran out
of film. Now I see him
murdered all over again.

Who developed the negatives?
Were they boxed with the rest
of his stuff, the evidence
of what he was? They told me
his possessions
were all tangled with his blood,
and that I knew the two lance corporals
who left their drunk fingerprints
on his skin.
I don’t remember their faces.

When I lift my head
the ping-pong table squares its edges.
The ceiling tiles stop tilting.
I see I haven’t moved, I’m still in the same spot on the couch,
but the questions
thread through my ears, piercing
like my first earrings.

**********************************
Here’s that same poem as reproduced in Red Balloon Magazine #23 — the “Dysentery” issue. Collage by Petros Evdokas.

*****************************************

TONY’S FINGER

Tony leaned on his shovel.
Late afternoon: the sun
polishing itself
in the waxy sweat of our necks.
We stared at the hole we’d dug
to a broken water line.
We’d shut it off and bailed the water,
but we hadn’t fixed the break.

He left to get a barricade, bringing
us one the size of a sawhorse.
The rusty hinges reminded me:
this barricade had stood in front of floods,
sewers, pot holes in bad weather.
The light on the barricade blinked
like one yellow eye
that has passed so long in the sun
it becomes caught between
opening and reflecting.

When Tony gripped the barricade again,
it folded. His right index finger
caught in the snap,
red liquid leaked down his pants,
the finger twitched by his boot.
“This finger’s got car grease
under its nail from a week ago
and mud from digging I don’t know how many
holes,” he said. He kicked the finger
into the hole. I thought it might hide
itself from the sun like half a worm,
and then grow into one.

******************************

AL

Al slowly wheels into the Smoke Room,
hunched, a sack of onions
in his chair; his hair
slouched gray over his ears. He pulls
up to an ashtray, filled with butts,
dead brain cells. “How long have I been here?”
“Over two weeks, Al,” I answer straight.
“Too long,” says Terry.
His right hand reaches for a cigarette,
cells to be burned. is fingers fumble his blue
pajama pocket camel filters.
I snap a match, light the tip
of his cigarette, what’s left
of his thinking. “Is my boat sold?”
“Look at your paper, Al.” He reaches
for his left robe pocket,
pulls out and unfolds the paper,
his substitute memory. He reads aloud: “House sold, boat sold, wife
dead,
$1,000 a month income. My parents must be dead.” “That’s right,
Al.” He fingers the hospital
band around his right wrist. “V.A. Hospital.
I must be in the right place. I served
on the Nevada during Pearl Harbor.
I can’t go home maybe an old soldiers’
home that wouldn’t be so bad.”
“Al, that cigarette’s got a filter.” He stomps
the yellow stump into the tray.
Sometimes he loses the live ash, the past
in his lap. This time, he remembers.

*****************************

DRESSING ROOM

The moon is six days between
full and new, shrinking
like a balloon that has been inflated
and released, only slower.
The lips of the moon are bent
towards earth. It can’t be seen
by women in long swishing skirts
and black flats. Clouds cover its face
along with the light of the stars.
A woman has awakened from a nightmare,
her nightgown sopping wet, sticking
cold to her chest. She dreamed she
was walking under a moon hotter
than the sun hits earth, yet she and her
partner were going to make it
to the other side of the world.
There were no stars and the tide
was out, the sands smooth as their beds,
the surface bubbles from clams digging
under to a deeper world. The sand was hot
as a griddle frying cakes. She woke up.
The sweat was already there and the moon
wasn’t. She had to have faith
that the clouds were only a cover
like the curtain to the dressing room
where she tried on her skirt.
It fit, made her think
of dancing and in the privacy
of no one to see she
was able to smile at herself.

**************************

HOSPITAL STILL LIFE

This chair, this bed with a blue
bedspread, this pillow in the S.W. corner
of the floor I sit on
closest to the door,
therefore last seen
through the clear glass window
I am being watched, but I’m not
afraid. I have my own thoughts
inside my brain, under my heart
a sponge soaking up the sea.

I have sat here, arms around
my knees, for hours now,
rocking like my grandfather
in his rocking chair at his farm.
I wish I could tell you a story
or two, but I am confused
about where my brain ends
and my heart begins.

*************************************

THE INTERROGATION

I.
Men in suits paced
behind her on the sidewalk.
A black car with extra antenna
idled half a block
from her bus-stop.
All night long a car
like a hopped up V.W.
revved its engine
every twenty minutes
and rumbled up the road.
“This is not happening,”
her therapist assured her.

II.
The interrogators asked,
“Who are you?” In her
lamp lit room, she sat
on a chair, back to the window.
They could have shot her
from the street, twelve floors
below. “I am a poet,” she said.
“I absorb, filter, reflect
and reinvent the wind,
pot holes in the street,
the cigarette wrapping,
city buildings. I tell bits
and pieces to make one peace.
I am not a prophet.
To be the Second Coming
is too much
responsibility.”

*********************************

FLASHBACK

Your shrink is interrogating you
in your mind, like the old mind
control they used in the military.
He doesn’t even know it,
drives his car, the one with ninety
thousand miles on it when he bought it.
The pistons need fixing.
You need fixing too. You tell him
you are tired of his mind
control. He says your mind is playing
tricks. For a moment you wonder who is talking
to you, Capt. Owen, your old commanding
officer, or your V.A. doctor. You look
down, our left fist is smacking
your open right hand. He has been haunting
you all weekend, you linger
in bed, listening. You tell him you want him
out of your head. He suggests meds.
You ignore this, say no, you know
he is a pill
dispenser. This is his answer to the bomb
pounding in your heart. You leave the office.
You have nothing more
to say. He will drive
home, probably eat dinner. You ride
the bus back, realizing he is
not your old captain driving you
to dirty tricks: prostituting
your mind writing propaganda
for the Marine Corps and civilian press;
interviewing drunk generals
who made passes, who wanted
a kiss. You even worked nights
at the Officer’s Club, serving,
after hours in the barracks
of Vietnam scarred soldiers.
You will return
home to your own
husband, himself a veteran. He is glad
the Dr. didn’t keep you.

*********************************

HOW TO AVOID AN ARGUMENT

The ashtrays are full.
He doesn’t smoke just now
but clasps his hands in his lap.
He is telling the woman how angry he is
at his daughter, how she uses them
to watch their t.v. after school
the way kids used to daydream in trees,
or as a place to crash after partying
Friday nights. The woman listens.
This is not the time to say anything.
She smokes cigarette after cigarette.
If nothing else they keep her
there, sitting at this table, listening.
She knows she is next. He turns first
on those furthest away, then circles in
like a vulture. She is closest
to him. She decides to go to sleep.
The ashtrays will not be emptied
for fear of a fire starting
from cigarettes, anger
not completely out. And she hopes
that this next battle
can be resolved in the world
of dreams, that she is the child
in the tree.

*****************************

BREAKING THE SILENCE

My jaws are clenched, teeth
biting teeth, upper against lower,
heaven biting hell, clenched in a stalemate
of silence. The Dr.s must not want me
to speak. They turn their heads away, so sure
of their knowledge of me already.
I wonder if I really have anything
to say. I have talked about my history,
the states I have travelled, places where I
marked time, the men I counted on.
Is it necessary to go through it again
with each new person? I really don’t know
whether it hurts more to talk
or not to talk.

When I was a child I twisted
my mother’s ears with my stories.
She sent me around the block
to wear out my tongue talking
to myself and neighbors’
roses. When I was in the service,
I stumbled onto something I wasn’t supposed to
write about. I didn’t know. I snapped
pictures. When they took my negatives,
I realized I wasn’t supposed to know
what I never had the chance
to develop.

I have learned this art of silence,
clenched jaws. Dr.s didn’t tell me
this was also a side-effect of going off
the medicine that kept me so calm
seven years, seven years after I accidently broke
the mirror of secrecy and silence.

I wish I could express to you the pain
I am in, this grinding of heaven
against hell. Do roses have pain
when they lose their petals? I prayed
last Monday night, sleepless, God would lift me
to Heaven. I got up hurting
the next morning.

Maybe I am meant to relax, open
my upper jaw above
the lower. Maybe I am meant to talk
to you, tell you my dark history,
the silent rose that will die
on the same stem where one
of words will grow.

*************************************

SUN BATH

I am sunbathing in the backyard
on dry grass. Fleas suicide,
dive onto the hot baby oil
on my legs, never finishing
their last bite. I listen
to cars amble down the Ave., the drivers
looking for two hour parking and I hear
the sounds of the alley, a bag man
clanging open the metal lid of a dumpster.
He is looking for what might be usable
in that which has been left. Other
people bring home groceries, bang closed
their trunks, locking in the spares.
I close my eyes, trusting. The sun
is in the south sky, hot.
My toes are pointing towards it,
a straight line to my face.

I dream of a watermelon spitting contest
in Texas when I was seven. I was
more spit than seed. Afterwards
my mother would hose us down, rinsing
the sticky juice that had dripped
onto our shirtless bellies. Maybe
a watermelon would grow inside me someday.
I had swallowed the seeds. I spread oil
on my thighs, turn on my belly.
The windsock next door is fading
a little more; the red sunset pink;
the dark blue, now a baby blue. I am being
baked almost as brown as my freckles.

********************************

SWIMMING

I. Austin Texas

Mother puts us on towels
beside the public pool
like the children of the otter
I saw at Pt. Reyes
whose children flopped on rocks
while she played in the tide.
Mother dives in, sleek, smooth
white skinned in her one piece suit
with a little skirt that makes it look
like a layered wedding cake
around her hips and waist.
She doesn’t feel safe not being
able to watch us play in the shallow
end while she swims laps
into the deep end where grown-ups go
and those who have learned to swim.

II. San Bruno, California

We are at Half Moon Bay.
Mother has packed a picnic.
We eat hotdogs with bits of sand
blown inside the buns with the wind
like eggshells in eggs.
Mother sips burgundy.
She reminds us of the undertow
to not turn our backs on the ocean
for it is more powerful and unpredictable
than any people. My younger brother
wades when he is suddenly pulled
off his feet, dragged out to sea.
He screams but we hear the roar of the ocean,
only see his head bobbing like a buoy
as he is tossed back at us
then dragged away. Mother acts quickly.
She has us join hands, from me
the next youngest closest to shore
to my older brother then mother
reaching out in a chain bound
by the iron of family to her baby.
We pull him in and we are not allowed
to go back again that day
but must remain on sand.

III. Berkeley, California

Mother has had the operation,
the removal of her left breast.
She stands in the hall and walks
her fingers up the wall, reaches her arm
up then back down over and over
counting to 100. She wants her movement
back. She wants to go swimming.
We go to a prosthetics store. She buys
a bra with a Jello-like breast
that is waterproof to fill in the missing.
She picks a bathing suit with a little skirt.
I am grown now. I swim the deep end
with my mother who will not yet give up
swimming. She dives in, and swims
climbs that wall and swims finally a snorkler
tubed to hospital beds until she becomes ash
and is sprinkled over the Pacific waters.

********************************

THE SMILE

I crawled through the curtained window
caught a corner of the cloth
veiling the dreamed opening
to sadness, pulled rod and all
down on my head.
My mother had warned me before
to not go through this hole.
When she saw the mess in my heart
she sent me into the backyard
to find a suitable stick, a switch
with which she spanked my bottom
above my pulled down pants.
She sent me to my room, a dog
to her corner, said to me, “Don’t
come out till you can wear a smile.”
I tried and eventually could
stretch my lips like a rubberband
gun about to go off. This fooled her.
Ever since my lips are the smile
of an onion slice, where if you touch
me with your fingers
you will make me
cry.

******************************

WHEN REAGAN RULED BERKELEY

I remember when the National Guard
occupied my city.
Tanks parked downtown
in front of Penny’s
in front of the drug store.
High school ended early
because of tear gas
blinding students.
The bull horn told us
how to walk home,
to avoid soldiers
lining streets with rifles.

After school, I worked
in the police station.
The police officers wore wigs
to uncover what the radicals
were up to. Governor Reagan
drove up to congratulate them.
He wore rouge and eyeshadow
for the camera.
The policemen shook his hand.

This was after the experiment
of dropping pepper gas
from helicopters,
where mothers, children and fathers
window shopping down Telegraph Ave.,
threw up on the sidewalk.
I remember the curfew
when we weren’t allowed
to watch the whole movie.
Full rolls of film were taken
from the photographer.
I remember the arms of a friend,
how I squeezed out the buckshot with tweezers
like pecking at handfuls
of birdseed.

*********************************

THE GLASSES

She had a way of losing
them. “Have you seen my glasses?”
she would ask. Blue rimmed bifocals —
a halloween mask — yet clear.
In a sense, doubly clear:
One vision for reading off ramps
from a freeway;
another for following
the double lines
of her husband’s
bloodshot eyes.

I look for her glasses
on the kitchen counter,
slide a bottle of wine
towards the wall;
it leaves a puddle
clearer than the ring
of her coffee cup.
Does she remember
how before the glasses
she always lost
her fountain pen?
I wonder what she kept
of her own vision.

If not in the kitchen
maybe in the bedroom —
On the chest of drawers
keys grin from a ring.
She used to hunt like this
on the sidewalk,
some place down the block
for children. Now, we look for her
in the hollow rings
of our own eyes.

*********************

INSURANCE OFFICE: WORKMAN’S COMP.

Janet rubberbands men
together again
and Fran caries
a stack of them
to Debbie’s box.
A red felt tip brands
each man, “O.K.”
for Sandy who types
like a woodpecker
one check after
the other.

Between in and out
boxes, we talk
to potted plants —
Listen to Sandy curse
when filing
broken nails.

**************************

4 Responses

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  • I love her style, a great writing combination of both “Show” & “Tell”! Her poem entitled Swimming really gets to me, it’s so tragic.
    -Tess

  • marilyn says:

    Wonderful poems…very moving. “Swimming” was my favorite.
    Thanks for sharing them.

  • Hi Mitchel,

    Thank you for sharing your memories of Crysta, in tandem with the poems she sent you. Floating Bridge Press has published a collection of her poetry, GREEN CAMMIE. I’d be happy to send you a copy–indeed a few copies–to share with her old friends in New York. I met Petros at the memorial service at the Seattle VA. Best regards, Deborah

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