Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Man Who Drew Humanity

It's been a year of too many goodbyes.

Gene Colan passed away this week, almost exactly a year after the passing of his wife, Adrienne. Gene was an illustrator of monumental achievements, known worldwide for the fluid grace and power of his creations. To pinpoint the moment I became a fan of his work, you'd have to go all the way back to 1968, when as a ten year old, I picked up a magazine he had illustrated called Dr. Strange...and I was hooked for life.

In a medium not known (at the time) for emotional depth, Gene's illustrations showed dimension and subtlety, capturing above all the countless nuances of the human face and form. As I grew from the boy enraptured by the dynamism and emotion of his art into a young man striving to find my own voice as a creator, I would return again and again to Gene's work, because above all I wanted to explore the depths and subtlety within people, and his art was a beacon shining across that landscape.

Thirty-seven years after I picked up that Dr. Strange book, far along my own creative path as a poet, I found out that Gene and his wife were living not far from the part of Florida I had recently relocated to myself. I was shy about the idea of approaching him; he had been one of my idols for so long, he seemed on an unapproachable plane to me. But I had heard across the years that he was a remarkably warm and open man, and so I took a deep breath and wrote to him, expressing my admiration for his work, and thanking him for the inspiration he had given me in my life.

Gene wrote back immediately. He wanted to know all about me; he was genuinely delighted that I had written. His wife Adrienne also sent a note, saying that she was an avid lover of poetry and had done a web search on my name -- she had found and read a number of my works, and was just as delighted as Gene at the opportunity for us to become friends.

For a long time I remained starstruck, but they were so gracious, so enthusiastic, so warm. I fell in love with them both. My own Mom had passed away over twenty years before, and my Dad was distant and indifferent; I thought perhaps it was unfair of me to feel so drawn to Gene and Adrienne in the filling of that void, but in the years that followed, their interest in my life never wavered. I would write poems for them on holidays, and Adrienne would write me long letters telling me her own favorites among the great poets (many of which we shared). She laughed and told me wildly funny jokes, and Gene would cheer every time a new work of mine appeared. I had begun a philanthropic effort called "Poets Against Abuse", inspired by a story done by another idol of mine, Don McGregor, and Gene. Both of these great-hearted men gave me permission to include their work in an online anthology to support survivors of abuse, asking nothing but the honor of helping women and children caught in environments of pain and danger.

In 2006 we talked for the first time about Gene illustrating one of my works. Along with his career drawing the exploits of larger-than-life characters and superheroes, he had a keen interest in what he called "Fine Art", and had done sublime and powerful portraits and other non-commercial works. But he didn't want to draw something easy. He asked me to choose the most complex, most emotionally layered of my works...and after much deliberation, I sent him a long poem I had written called "Dining on Twilight", in which I explored the difficult emotions in my parents' marriage right up to her death from cancer, cast in a kind of mythic imagery. A challenging work even for me to get a grip on. I thought Gene would say I was crazy -- that it could not be drawn.

Instead, he wrote to me with immense enthusiasm, saying how much the piece had moved him, and he would love to try creating an image for it. He told me he didn't want to let me down, and asked me question after question about my own emotions in creating it. Finally he said he was ready, and in a few months he would send me the work. When he did, I was staggered by its beauty, its depth, and its amazing grasp of the humanity in a man and woman who loved one another but struggled for dominance in a joining filled with both passion and pain. Here it is: Gene Colan's rendering of "Dining on Twilight".

To this day, I look at the drawing in awe. Gene asked me, nervously (to my amazement), if I liked it. I told him he had done the impossible, and captured every emotion, every subtle shade of the poem. He thanked me, and I could only mutter equal thanks in return.

Gene wanted to do one more of my existing poems, and then, he said, he wished I would write something special for him -- a new work to illustrate, which he would tell me about. The second work we chose was a poem about a man and a woman walking in a blizzard, and feeling only warmth, as they were lost in their love for each other. Here it is, called "Plough and Stars".

Once again, Gene blew me away -- this time with the richness of this evocation of love.

And so we talked about the third piece. It would never be completed, as Gene's health declined, and tragedy would arrive in the death of his beloved Adrienne. But I wrote the poem for it, after a long talk with Gene in which he described to me a visionary image of what he felt love to be. He had moved from the painful, complex image of my parents, to the loving and warm depiction of a love that could defy all worldly cold -- his own vision of love went beyond death itself. In it he saw a man on a train platform in winter, and as he stood there a vision of spring would appear, as frozen vines and plants around him would seem to spring into life. A train would appear, coming toward the platform, and at that point he realized that he had died, and had been waiting -- the train would be carrying the love of his life, and soon they would be reunited. I don't think Gene ever envisioned a world in which his beloved Adrienne would be gone before him, and so he was the man on the platform, and she the one who would come to him. It didn't work out that way.

Though the third drawing was never done, it lives now in my mind. And it is Adrienne who has been waiting on the platform, for the love of her life to join her. In my heart and in my dreams, they will always be together. I am grateful beyond all words for the chance to have had them both in my life. Here they are, and here is the poem I wrote from Gene's vision.

On the Platform
 Dedicated to Gene Colan

In the middle distance,
the tracks seemed to run together
into a single line, until they turned,
bending from sight,
in the direction that she would come.

He stood on the train platform
with afternoon dimming.
A brief lull in the day’s snowfall;
lights would soon bathe
the stark, grey space
in yellow radiance,

Behind him was a high concrete wall,
and there were roots and vines,
January stark, clinging to the stone.
At winter’s close, perhaps,
they would yearn for color,
to thicken,
graced with hints
that would be flowers, in their time.

As he watched the wall,
the tangled lines of life
in hibernation
opened out, and he saw thorns,
ice-covered, on the vines.

He took off his glove, and reached out,
resting a fingertip
on that tracery of life,
of withered pain, and the scent
of phantom petals against stone.

He didn’t even feel it prick,
and was surprised to see
a drop of blood left there.
Winter flower,
a rose,
to freeze and grace the wall
until the sun came.

When he’d died,
only one thing
had been cause for sadness.
Leaving love behind, after so many years,
to wait here
until the day that she would join him.

The lights had gone down
while he’d let his thoughts wander.
He saw, then
the headlamp of the approaching train,
as it turned that distant bend,
and came, arrow-straight,
pushing a different sun before it.

Soon she would arrive
at the platform.
He would leave his glove off
so he could take her hand,
here, where winter ends.


Lisa Alexander Griffin said...

The poem is so very beautiful. Brought tears to my eyes. Your friend and mentor, Gene is now holding hands with his wife, his winter ended. Now, rejoined with his wife, they are happy and one again.

I lost an uncle, just this week and the only solace I find is in knowing he's finally with the one love of his life again, smiling and holding hands my aunt Betty. You could always look at them as they looked at each other and clearly see "love" shining bright in their eyes. A rarity in our world these days.

God Bless you, R Paul, and I'm sorry for your loss.

R. Paul said...

I'm so sorry about your uncle, Lisa. And yet there is that solace that you speak of so poignantly...the knowledge that he is once again holding his wife's hand, and winter has indeed ended.

Bless you too, dear friend. As beloved friends and family pass from life, new ones somehow miraculously enter in, bringing their own warmth and caring. Just as you have come into my life.

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