Arthur Ray Brown, my closest friend at Webster College, died of a heart attack in 1982, a month short of his 35th birthday. Hardly a week passes that I don't find myself thinking of something he did or repeating something that he said. My speech is still spiced with his turns of phrase, and my heart warmed by thoughts of his generosity and insight.
I made it through freshman year at Webster thanks in large part to Arthur's kindness. When I first arrived in Saint Louis I didn't have much money after paying my college fees; Arthur and his wife Barbara basically got me through that year. Even the radio in my dorm room was a gift from them. and many of the clothes I wore came from Arthur's family. I had a standing invitation for Friday dinner with the Browns. I spent many happy evenings at their apartment in the west end, being introduced to such varied delicacies as chitluns, greens, borscht, rural blues, the St. Louis jazz scene, checkers (I don't think I ever won a game), and most of all Arthur's poetry. Arthur was a remarkable writer. Like his speech, his poems rolled together the language of street with that of the library in a head-spinning mix in which each illuminated and deepened the other. Here are three poems he published in Tansy, a little magazine from Lawrence, Kansas.
I once painted a portrait of Arthur. You can look at it here. There is also a candid of Arthur and a couple of other people (do you know who they are?) that I found via Webster's archive of old photos; it's here.
The last time I saw Arthur was at the time of my wedding in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He'd driven east from Saint Louis to share the moment with Wendy and me even though he had cautioned me by phone before he came that he wasn't "ready for a wedding." His divorce was still painfully fresh in his mind, and so the trip east was truly an act of love. In fact he was in fact not ready for a wedding; he was miserable the entire time he was in Cambridge, and before leaving he told me that he'd discovered why people cry at weddings. "It's for themselves," he said with a small smile.
I never saw Arthur Brown again. Within days of the wedding, I was working overseas. We wrote a couple of times and I was looking forward to seeing him when we got back, but just weeks before returning to the States I got a letter from a friend of his telling me that he had died. Later I talked with Billy Collins, who had been sharing an apartment with him at the time of his death. According to Billy, in his last months Arthur's life had really started coming together after a difficult time. He had published a book of poems and was teaching English. One morning, as Billy explained it later, Arthur simply did not come out of the shower. Fred Nelson, another friend, later confirmed Billy's story, adding that he had heard that Arthur's heart had 'exploded.'
The next time I was in Saint Louis, in 1984, Lew Prince and Tom Ray took me to the cemetery to visit Arthur's grave. We got silly and took some pictures of ourselves at the headstone, even one with a boom-box apparently plugged into it. The River Styx at Duff's Poetry Series used to have an Arthur Brown memorial music and poetry night in the spring, organized by JD Parran and Shirley LaFlore.
Check out his poetry if you possibly can. It's a gift from him to us that is a source of joy to anyone who reads it. As he said to me once, "a thing of beauty is a joy most all the time." His writing is indeed a thing of beauty, and is a continuing joy to me. (there may still be copies of a special issue of River Styx, 'A Trumpet in the Morning,' a collection of some of Arthur's poems; e-mail them here for information)
Finally, on January 4, 2005, Sound Vision Orchestra premiered 'A Trumpet in the Morning,' a work for improvising orchestra by Marty Ehrlich. The piece features a reading of Arthur's poem of that name. Here are some pictures of the performance -- JD Parran is the pictured reader and soprano sax soloist and Marty Ehrlich is conducting -- picture 1; picture 2; picture 3; picture 4; picture 5; picture 6). I drove to the performance with my sons Leo and Danny. The experience was moving.