By Victor D. Infante

These past few weeks, I have been preoccupied with my late friend Jack McCarthy. Jack was one of the best poets and people I knew, and I find his ghost speaking to me whenever I type. It’s Jack, though, so the voice is chatty and conversational, but I’ve learned lessons in the almost 20 years I knew the man, know enough not to be distracted, to be aware of the serious undertow beneath the jocular demeanor. There is an emotional haymaker coming whenever Jack speaks, the kind that can only be conjured from years of heartbreak and loss, and from years of love. Jack loved hard, and as his ghost whispers in my ear, I’m pretty sure he still does. That sort of love doesn’t fade when the funerals are done and the mourners’ tears have dried. If it did, this business of poetry would be utterly meaningless.

Jack brews a cup of strong coffee and settles down to a poker game with the other ghosts crowding my head, the ones who all seem to re-emerge when a new face joins them. Scott Wannberg is there, and Erica Erdman. Hugh Fox and Dennis Brutus. FrancEye, Kathleen Hietala, Peter Conti, Lisa King, Ted Walker, Lawrence Schulz, Pat Storm, Ken Hunt, Merilene Murphy, Shannon Leigh, Bob Challman, Angela Boyce, Gabrielle Bouliane and David Blair. “Too many,” I think, and Jack laughs kindly, eyes twinkling. He knows we all end up in this place, eventually, where we’re just shadows on the wall. And he knows that, in the end, we’re also more than that.

Erica says something droll and witty, and Merilene laughs so loud the windows rattle. Blair starts to sing, and his voice is as gorgeous as ever. Scott surrenders to the groove, as he always did, and starts to dance with be-bop abandon. They’re speaking all at once now, their words a cacophony of metaphors and imagery, a caterwaul of voices that are as alive as they have ever been. I try to snatch lines from the air, but they slip through my fingers. I stop, then, and simply listen as one by one, each voice emerges from the din, each one vibrant and distinct. Each one indelibly present.

They’re with us still. All of them, their words scattered across our bookshelves and computer bookmarks, across our CD collections and our MP3 files. Each of us who walk this path of poetry are haunted by their language, their passion and their love. It informs each line we write. It is the piece of them — of us — that survives, a chain going back to the dawn of humanity, to when someone, somewhere, first tried to describe something that was too big to plainly state, a thought that could only be conveyed through inference and metaphor, through symbol and rhythm.

Whoever that long-forgotten poet was, he’s at the table now, and he’s dealing. The noise dies down, and Jack plays his hand. I can’t see what he’s holding, but he’s smiling like he knows something I don’t. Which was usually the case. Their game goes on without us, and we’re left here with pocketfuls of poems, each one unique and priceless. Each one necessary.

Those poems are the reward and burden of the living, a lesson we’ve learned in two years of publishing elegies for poets in Radius. They are a price we pay for a life in poetry, a debt we can never fully repay, a responsibility that stays with us until we join our friends at the table, and that long-forgotten poet deals us our cards.