Gene Keller on Robert Burlingame

Gene Keller by Richard Baron

As I mentioned in my blognote about Bob Burlingame, our friendship was always punctuated by long interruptions. My friend Gene Keller (singer, songwriter, poet) had a much longer and enduring friendship with Bob, so I asked him to write something. I am posting it below. Gene is one of those necessary pieces of cloth that holds the quilt of El Paso's rich cultural underground together. He's a touchstone. I definitely recommend Richard Baron's unique interview with Gene from Newspapertree.com. Like Robert Creeley, Gene lost an eye an early age, and he tells that story there. The photograph of him is Richard's too. Visit Richard's website. His photographs are remarkable and should be much more widely known. Richard now lives in Santa Fe.

So to Gene's remarks:

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to write about Bob Burlingame (1922-2011). As you wrote, we had an "enduring friendship." In 1968 I took a class in Modern Poetry with Burlingame. We studied Eliot, Frost, Cummings, Stevens, and W. C. Williams. This was in the days of mimeographs, so he would occasionally bring sheets of poems in purple ink by contemporary poets such as Bly and Kinnell, translations of Neruda and Machado. He became my thesis advisor in graduate school, allowing me to present a creative thesis rather than a scholarly essay.

I learned recently that it is said of Barney Oldfield, an early American auto racer, he couldn't think unless he was going a hundred miles an hour. Bob Burlingame's wisdom says, "Slow down. See the world at two or three miles an hour." I love his eye for a clarity of detail as he walked in the deserts and mountains of his life. In his readings of his own poems, he also demonstrated the virtue of slowing down by mouthing each word slowly, giving the consonants and vowels a moment to rest in the ear.

He was a plain man of the Kansas plains who wandered into the Southwest. He came to Texas Western College in 1954. Over the decades he influenced many young poets now entering their own elderhood - Howard McCord, Pat Mora, and Ben Sáenz, among many others.

He offered another lesson, that the craft of poetry was about writing and not so much about publishing. Individual poems appeared in journals, including Kayak, Quarterly West, and Texas Observer. But a book of his New and Selected Poems came from Houston's Mutabilis Press in 2009 - Some Recognition of the Joshua Lizard. The litany at the end of my poem that follows, Plain, is taken from the titles of his poems in that book. At the time of his death in late September, it was noted that a book of desert poems was forthcoming. I look forward to it like water after a hike.


            in memory, Bob Burlingame

If he had been
a creature on
an endangered list,

he might have been
a blackfooted ferret

beneath a gnarled
hackberry stump creekside
off the plains of Kansas,

or the plainest of plover
only found rarely
in a high canyon

deep in the Guadalupes
under the white peak
of  El Capitán -

ancient reef
overlooking the salt flats
of West Texas.

He becomes a joshua lizard,
dry weeds, yellowood,
rooster, fish, beaver, finch,

blue milkwort, wild cherry,
sandhill crane, turkey vulture,
sunflower, shark, dandelion,

portuguese man-of-war,
sycamore, mountain laurel -
all that sing in solitude.


Stepping through the door
opened me like sugar,
triggered a beam.

The clarity of light
through the door
soaked to the marrow.

At home in words,
I'm caught in the continuo
of their music.

A page of poetry opened -
an aural architecture
in a sonnet by Donne.

Like this, only simpler,
a way of seeking
that includes seeing.

Sweet words of light
behind every door,
after my mentor.

(from Chrysalis, 2011)

Here's a nice video of Gene singing a song at a party in the Sunset Heights neighborhood of El Paso, 2009. Puro Gene. Happy and at ease and wise. 

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