When A Poet Dies

from the London Free PressThursday, February 22, 2018:

He was a downtown London fixture, the skinny old hippie with the long beard, the rumpled second-hand clothes and a suit jacket covered in buttons, standing outside Joe Kool’s reciting his poetry, happily coaxing the people on Richmond Row to listen and ask what he had in his two heavy, duct-taped plastic bags of papers and books.

He was the quiet philosopher, almost Dumbledore-like, sitting at the table of a McDonald’s or Tim Hortons, busily working on his writing or inviting people to join him for a coffee.

In the helium sphere days of the mid-90’s, back in the beginning when Paul was living with us (my ex-husband and I that is), when Paul was going through his first bi-polar episodes, swinging from one idea to another, up and down, and trips back and forth to the hospital, well, back then, he came home one day and said he’d just met this interesting guy on the street outside Joe Kool’s, up on Richmond Row.

Two Friends and a dog - 1990's - thetemenosjournal.comWho’d he’d met was Roy McDonald – poet, street philosopher, author, oft known as the “Mayor of Richmond Row”. Many a person has stories of Roy, late at night, as the bars are hopping, and there you would find him, with some lost soul or other, some who didn’t think they were maybe lost, but Roy handed out his kernels of wisdom and whimsy to what others could not see.

Paul came back to our place, in one of those seemingly brief times of clarity, when you could reach him, and said he’d sat there with Roy for over an hour, as he told Paul his life story and his own experiences with mental illness.

Most would just pass him by, thinking him just another homeless guy, of no consequence.

However, who Paul had met was a fixture of the streets of London.

There were all sorts of stories that swirled around about him – that he was once a professor at Western was one I had heard, though I now know to be false. True that he lectured and had a great wealth of knowledge, and perhaps life is not fair, perhaps in another life he would have been a professor at some esteemed University. Yet, I wonder if Roy’s sort of wisdom was suited to such staid establishments of knowledge, not suited for containers, or confined to those who had the entrance fee to higher education.

No, instead Roy could often be found in that same place, outside Joe Kools, at the heart of Richmond, offering freely his wisdom and words to the young people who frequented the many libation stations that dot that part of town.

His knowledge though was the kind that many overlook, walk past, ignore, as the package it’s presented in was obscured by grungy clothes and a long shaggy beard.

Yet, for the few who bothered to stop and give him the time of day, walked away having their mind blown, with stories to tell their friends about the guy they met the other night downtown, with his long gray beard and hair that would make Gandalf proud.

Roy appears on lists of Canadian Poets, has his own Wikipedia page, and has been the subject of films.

The following is some of his wisdom, on his poetry, from an interview he did October 14th, 2009:

KH: Do you feel any obligation, speaking specifically of poetry, to your reader? Or do you write solely for yourself?

RM: I think a writer writes for both. There are different ways of writing, different reasons people write poetry or anything else. If we talk about poetry, it’s a way of thinking, a way of therapy. It can be very good therapy. You know, someone breaks up with one’s girlfriend or one’s girlfriend breaks up with you, and then you write a poem about the heartache. It helps. To write about the relationship can be very helpful. And another reason, of course, is memory. When I recite a poem… There’s a whole different feeling when one recites a poem than when one just reads a poem.
And [at] most poetry readings, people read their poems. I’ve made it a point to memorize a lot of my poems, and that just makes it easier to get directly to the other person because you’re not just reading it from a sheet of paper or a book. And if I’ve had certain memorable experiences, I write about them, and then when I read them to myself, to others, to an audience, to one person, to a group, the feelings come back that I wrote the experience about. And that’s valuable too.

Roy McDonald interview – October 14th, 2009 – at London Mic Poetry Archive

I don’t recall the first time I saw Roy downtown, in that very spot, and I too walked past him with my prejudice glasses on. Paul though, being Paul, wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to talk to a stranger, regardless of how strange the stranger seemed. What I remember from that day, when Paul woke up the next morning and was telling me of his experiences, was how Roy had made him feel that this thing that had transformed him, wrecked his sanity, tormented him, was not all-powerful and could be subdued to quieter corners. Roy gave him hope.

Now, so many years later I don’t even know if Paul is alive or dead. We had to shut him out of our lives a year or so after that day, as his Schizoaffective disorder symptoms were overwhelming us, he was becoming dangerous, and he was not dealing with any of it, would stop taking his meds, and careen off into insanity, again and again, until one day, my back sliding down the wood of the front door, as tears rolled down my face, and he pounded away, pleading for me to let him in. But I couldn’t. I was all alone, as my ex-husband was away at work, and we had discussed this, for hours, crying and hugging each other as we came to this painful truth, that he was becoming dangerous.

So my thoughts running through my head this morning, when I saw that video from the CBC London of Roy’s funeral, with his coffin, snow flying, as his pall-bearers carried his earthly remains from the service, were of memories of that day when we both had hope. Perhaps for nought, but even tiny bits of hope help in times of trouble. We often think, maybe, hope fixes things. I don’t think so. I think hope just makes things a bit more bearable, a bit less insurmountable, and for that, I am very grateful.

Rest easy Roy, and thank you for the light of hope you shone.

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