My Father, Lighthouse Keeper and Priest of the Holy Typewriter

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My uncle Howard was an architect who designed our house in Indiana as a modernist barn made out of weathered barn wood and stone – really a Barnstone of a house. There on display were our mother’s batiks, some mounted on wooden frames and lit from behind so the wax glowed and illuminated the colors like stained glass. And every wall held our father’s library of poetry, history and philosophy: Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Borges and Calvino, Dickinson and Akhmatova. In a very real sense we grew up inside our uncle’s skull, thinking with our father’s mind, and seeing through our mother’s eyes.

Each summer, our parents would drive us to our summerhouse in Vermont in our white Buick Special, three children plus various cats and dogs. This was before the Internet, before cell phones, before cable TV. Television was broadcast, and was only a few stations. But we didn’t have a television in the house. We barely had a phone – we had a party line, where you would pick up the phone and if the farmer down the road was already talking you’d have to hang up and wait till they were done before making your call. But we didn’t need phones or TV. Instead we would go in to Brandon and raid the local library for dozens of books, which we would devour and we spent our childhood painting, drawing, writing poems and stories, and hiking in the Green Mountains.

Our strange and interesting family gave us a vision of what it was to have a life work, as well as a life, and permission to pursue that life work, even at the expense of practical considerations.

It all sounds super, right? But Willis has a secret. All throughout my teen years, Willis was an addict. No, not heroin. Not meth. But something as ecstatic, and as hard to shake. My father was a sonnet addict. This disease is terrible, you find you’re speaking in iambics, you can’t shake it, and apparently — despite the efforts of the medical establishment — there is no cure. His poem “The Dope on Willis” asks is he “Obsessed? Yes, with the word,/soul mask.” He was so bad his students had a tee-shirt made for him, and it read SONNETMAN.

He’s always been a man who is out of sync with his time. As academics were becoming more specialized, my father chose to master many arts and fields – poet, translator, anthologist and memoirist, fiction writer, classicist, religious scholar, specialist in Romance languages, humorist, comparatist and textbook author. When free verse had become so hegemonic that it you couldn’t publish or win prizes for poetry that rhymed or had rhythm, Willis remained a lonely lighthouse keeper, tending his flame atop the tower, and turning himself night after night, year after year, into sonnets.

As a New York Jew tossed into the rural Midwest by the academic job market, Willis was like one of those old Chinese poets, forced out of the brilliant capital and sent to the countryside to write and paint obscurely in some provincial river town. Here’s his sonnet, “With My Redneck Sons in Southern Indiana”:

The pampas of America begin north of our barn. Glaciers smoothed down the earth for buffalo and corn, but I live in the poor south hills where farmland isn’t worth the taxes, and the KKK comes out of the wet Gothic woods. Our humpbacked barn is rusty in the patient twilight. Scout- ing the Blue River bendable as yarn or glowworms, I am not quite Baptist red- neck like my sons who often paddle through the bluffs. But in a barn I placed a bed and desk and dreamt the world. Gone from the coast, I camp on hills of vanished Indians and few calm nights and hear trees talk. I’m still a ghost.

He lived in Indiana, but spent his time being the ghost of Ballantine Hall, writing books in his office and talking to Sappho and Rilke and Machado and Borges. Long after everyone else had gone home for the night, his light shone high up in the tower, and his friends were the janitors, whom he calls, “Companions of the dust and yellow broom/with which you face the trash, friends of the door/and corridor.

But as I’ve told him often, without that drama of exile, without the ineffable sadness and loneliness, would he have written poems of such marvelous pathos? Here is his “Solitude of the Planets”:

As Voyager sails close, hot Jupiter, a million jungle clouds of gaseous rain, turns its red eye to Earth, the gardener of planets. The red eye’s a hurricane leering under the sixteen moons. The Sun, Earth, and Jupiter roll alone and know nothing of solitude, yet each is one estranged, like us, in solitude, with no way out of space. We think. And personally, I am a floating record of one man plotting to go beyond his solitude, a shy bohemian waiting lustfully. But like those Galilean moons, I brood in circles back to space where I began.

I’d like to tell you that his collection of 17 years of sonneteering, The Secret Reader: 501 Sonnets, was his magnum opus, but for Willis this was just one among many. There is his work as a poet and translator, his work on the Gnostics, Manichaeans and Neoplatonists of the Intertestamental period and beyond in his The Other Bible and his The Gnostic Bible. And there is his epic version of the New Testament, with large portions of it translated into verse, a “Restored New Testament” that seeks to redress the identity theft at the core of Christianity, where so many Christians were raised to be unaware that the New Testament is a Jewish book, with a Jewish cast of characters, and that they themselves are messianic Jews who worship a Rabbi. It’s funny, and a little daunting, to be able to say, “My father wrote the Bible.” In truth, he’s written many of them.

Ultimately, Willis is a Bible scholar who has hope instead of faith, and a doubt that leads to relentless questioning. Words are his flashlight in the darkness. As he writes “My faith is vague and dark/like a small coin that may or may not be/in my pants pocket, that might buy me hope/of knowing who I am.” But in words, also, are the darkness. Elsewhere, he writes, “My decades are the chapters of a book/whose title – Willis –tells me who I am/but nothing of the inside, and if I look/behind the title page, Jesus! I slam/the covers panicky. How can I face/knowing my world is merely words?” That’s why in “A Writer Gives His Fingers a Tip,” he writes: “Enough. Get off the keys. Go home and hold a glass of tea and think of tinkering with applies, clits and tits.” But, no. Willis is a man of paper, turning into books. As he says in “Dancing in the Tower,” “Go home? Why? I’ve been/there once.”

And this is my strongest image of those Indiana years: there in his temple, high atop the limestone tower, one light burned like an illuminated clock face against the sky, as my father worshipped his pantheon of literary Gods in the only way he knew how: by typing on the holy machine and creating his bibles of doubt — in hope that they might talk across time to you, the one he calls his “secret reader” or his “secret friend.” And that’s the poem I’ll leave you with:

The Secret Friend

I am surprised to find you at the end of our strange walk. You stick with me, although I’m dead, or else obscure, and I depend on you, the unknown friend, for life. Spino- za built a world with words, dressing his tree with letters of infinity. He ground his lenses with a love that couldn’t see the one they fit with vision, and the sound of the mute cosmos was his sole return for love. I’ve been too lonely to survive on nature or the wild and singing shark, and shaped my life and manuscript to earn your gaze. Sun burns up thought, yet in the dark inside, I pause to meet your eyes alive.