ESSAY – SEPTEMBER 2008
By Joshua Bodwell
“How could I explain to him except right now, here, that being absent made no difference to being present.”
from “The Shepard Didn’t Want to Be Buried Now” by David Mason Heminway.
Late in the afternoon on the Fourth of July—when the air was still heavy and many hours before firework flowers blossomed in the darkened night sky—my great uncle drew in his last strained breath. His tired lungs could not keep pace with his keen mind. He closed his intense blue eyes. He had fought long enough.
David Mason Heminway was, above all else, a poet. It was not only that he published four books of poetry over his eighty-one-year life, but it was how he lived his life that made my great uncle a poet. It is true that, after studying at Hobart College, Columbia University, and Cambridge, he became a brilliant academic who taught English and theater his entire career—but David led with his heart. The world was always miraculous to my great uncle: every sunrise or sunset, every shift of the tide or gust of wind in the trees. He retained a joyful innocence and an enthusiasm for language that were infectious. He was one of the most playfully intelligent people I have ever known
Tall and lean with the white beard of a sage, David was the very epitome of lanky, an attribute only exaggerated by his lolling, loving eccentricity. I often called him by his initials—DMH—and in his hand-written letters, he would address me as his “GREAT Nephew,” a small reminder of his feeling for me. Still, ours was a complex relationship
David was the kid brother of my grandfather, and even when I was young we bonded over being the “little brothers.” By my late teens, he became a teacher and mentor to me, walking me through poetry lessons in long letters from his hillside home in Tuscany. Later, he would become my peer and writing colleague while remaining my mentor; he often praised my writing, but always included a critique, too. Our relationship never stopped evolving. After my grandfather died in 2000 (also on the Fourth of July), David became the last grandfatherly figure in my life
We had great adventures, David and I. In 1998, I visited with him in Milan. In 2001, we gave a series of readings together in England; we read in London, Lewes, and in Dorset at the Wessex International Poetry Festival. In 2003, after living in Italy and Germany since the 1960s, David and my aunt Betsy bought a home in Damariscotta. That June, after Steve Kelly and I helped settle him into his new house, the three of us skinny-dipped off the northern tip of North Haven. “I go in nude!” cried David from the rocky beach. Enamored of this great Bohemian poet, Steve and I stripped down and joined him in the surprisingly warm, salty surf
My uncle David was so many things to me, but above all he was my friend—one of my best friends. Yes, we disagreed, we argued—he once hung up the phone on me because I had used a red pen to edit a piece of his prose—but we loved each other unconditionally. David had this way of grabbing me by the shoulders and gazing into my eyes with such intensity that it could bring me to tears. He was proud of my writing successes, though he also loved me too much to stop urging me to be both more concise and more poetic at the same time
In the last email David ever sent me, just two weeks before he passed, typing on a laptop from his hospital bed, he corrected my use of “who” in an email, noting that I should have used “whom.” He signed the message, always teasing himself, “Yr. favorite jackass great Uncle D.
David was the first real writer in my life; he showed me something to aspire to. What would I have become without him? David taught me how to be a better artist, and therefore the man I am today. As I look back over his life, I realize that there are too few words in this world to explain what he meant to me…what he means to me. I am not ready to say that David Mason Heminway was a poet. I still want to say is
My uncle David perpetuated my passion to not only observe and record life but to wrap my arms around it—to truly love it. “I love you, guy,” he would say at the end a phone call, before adding, “I send you hugs, lots of Hem Hugs.” Then he would groan, “Hhhhuuuggggs!” and I would imagine his long, bony arms wrapping me up in a tight embrace as the line went dead
What will I do now without all those hugs from my GREAT uncle, my mentor, my blood.
ERRANDS IN LEWES, ENGLAND
for David Mason Heminway
We ducked in and out of bookstores,
visited with three women bookbinders,
indulged in cappuccinos and shopped
for the groceries we’d been asked to.
When we walked home slowly along
the narrow, muddy River Ouse,
you threaded your arm through mine,
as you so often do when we walk together.
To steady this old body you said once,
when we were walking in Milan.
We barely paid attention to the river
as we walked alongside it,
crossing over at one point on a foot-bridge.
We were busy talking things out:
agreeing and disagreeing, talking poems
and poets and the way we live with words.
At times you slowed to a crawl or just stopped
walking altogether. Again and again you placed
your hands on my shoulders and looked into my
eyes to tell me what was weighing on your mind.
When the rain shower blew through, we were
almost home. Without an umbrella between us, we
ducked beneath a tree to wait out the storm.
We huddled tight against the trunk and I felt us,
in that warm moment, living inside a poem
not unlike the ones we had been talking of.