Eliot says, “April is the cruelest month,” and on Saturday, April 16, long-time Alaskan poet, Joe Enzweiler, died in hospice in Cincinnati, Ohio, surrounded by family. Joe has been struggling with brain cancer for the past two years. Who knows how long the tumors had actually been there, but by the time they were diagnosed, he was on a slow slide off the slippery slope of the planet.
This past fall, Joe married his long-time girlfriend, Karen Grossweiner, who writes there will be a funeral mass for Joe in Cincinnati on May 2 and a Celebration of Life on May 22. She plans a memorial gathering in Fairbanks in July, when she returns to Alaska.
Joe trained as a physicist, but always wrote poetry and, when I met him in the fall of 1978, he was one of the brilliant young men in a writers’ workshop at UAF taught by John Morgan and Dave Stark that included Dan O’Neill, Linda Schandelmeier, Jean Anderson, Patricia Monaghan, Gerald Cable, and Elyse Guttenberg, among others. Joe’s poems always contained language that flew off the page to somewhere unexpected. He was tall and wiry with an unruly tangle of blonde hair and an elusive quality—he would leave town for his brother’s farm in Kentucky nearly every year, so that he seemed to have the Cheshire habit of continually appearing and disappearing from our literary community.
After a number of years working first at the UAF Geophysical Institute, then at DOT, he made a life for himself in the cabin he built among birch trees on Old Cat Trail outside Fairbanks. He had electricity, but no running water, and he heated with wood. One of the ways he meditated on the nature of this world and generated poems was to head out to his woods with a Swede saw and cut small trees—thinning out his patch of forest—which he stacked in a mosaic pattern under his porch. He also stacked rocks, and had a years’-long project building a fieldstone wall through his brother’s Kentucky property.
Joe believed writers should write, no more, no less. Because he had his land and could support himself with carpentry work in the summer, most of his winter days were spent just writing—or running, or reading, or cutting wood, or engaging in long conversations that drifted along as if there were no other demands on either person’s time. Talking to Joe could make you feel that work was an indulgence, a distraction. The true work was the written word.
Joe and I had a years’-long habit of getting together for Poetry Thursdays. It started when he needed help navigating a computer version of one of his books—what to do about margins, fonts, etc. It evolved into evenings of his reading aloud new drafts of his developing memoir, or my reading him new poems or essays. He took the manuscript of my book and chapbook and gave me useful suggestions on poem order, sections, and the paring away of words. He always had time for other writers and, perhaps, more faith in their work than they had themselves.
Every Christmas, our family would go to Joe’s place to thin out a spruce from “Joe’s Tree Farm.” We would stop for tea first, then after a few hours of conversation, head out in a rush to find a tree before the waning light left us.
Now, he has left us. “So many,” Eliot says, “I had not thought death had undone so many.” Eliot’s words still live—and so will Joe’s. And Joe was right: writing (or art or whatever we can create out of our own uniqueness) is the true work. The rest is distraction.
Our thanks to Cindy Hardy for this post, portions of which originally appeared at her blog http://www.mattiespillow.wordpress.com/.