That is a wonderful book of poems and was my introduction to Sharon Olds. The Dead and the Living was the Lamont Poetry selection for 1983, judged by June Jordan, Charles Simic, and David Wagoner. It also won the 1984 National Book Critics' Circle Award for Poetry. I have taught several poems from this book in literature classes, or used them as prompts or samples in creative writing classes because they are straightforward, readily available in both language and feeling, and have jagged edges and hard emotions, so the student readers and writers respect them. They are real.
But there is nothing for me in them today, no phrase or set of lines to mark the sudden death of Chris Al-Aswad, a lovely young man who lived in my town, came into the bookstore where I work frequently and just a couple weeks ago, and who is/was the editor of a gorgeous online literary magazine called Escape Into Life.
The title so clearly, now, in retrospect, states what he wanted to do, "escape into life."
I don't know the circumstances of his death, nor what he wanted to escape into life from, but I know from his blog that he had troubles, tough times, and tenderness, and that he was driven by glorious aspirations. He wanted to be a writer. He wanted people to read what he wrote. And they did. He showcased art and poetry beautifully in his magazine, got people engaged in the essays; he gathered a bunch of lively, creative writers to make it an exciting place to visit...and now, dreadfully, he is gone.
I see that his mother, Rosalind Al-Aswad, was a visual artist, coming to that after a life as a businesswoman and clothing designer for Sears. She died young, too, at 60, from a debilitating disease. Chris died at 31, much too young.
Sometimes I celebrate, whimsically, the random coincidii of life. Randomness applies more soberly here. In this case, I was at the beach in Michigan with family and had just been talking about Chris with my sister, Chris, saying how delighted I was to have met him and, very recently, taking over when his poetry editor left. (We had just put up the Sarah J. Sloat feature the week before.) Oddly then, mid-week, I had a pang. Something troubling, undefined.
Friday night I dozed on the couch while the rest of the vacationing family played a loud, raucous game of Catch Phrase, followed by Taboo. Then I sat up, fully awake, and went page by page through the Chicago Tribune, not something I usually do. Near the end, at the alphabetical beginning of the small-print obituaries, there was "Al-Aswad, Christopher R.," an unusual name, terribly familiar. I tore it out with my fingers, the 2" x 2" obituary, and carried it around in my pocket till I got home. I kept hoping it wasn't him. But it is.
His wake was Friday, his services Saturday, in the Chicago area, when I was traveling home to the town in which he most recently lived. He is of a mixed heritage, interfaith family--Russian Jewish mother, Iraqi Christian father--and memorials go to the Shem Center for Interfaith Spirituality, 708 N. Harvey Ave., Oak Park, IL, 60302. Or to the Rosalind D. Al-Aswad Memorial Fund, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Office of Development, 37 S. Wabash, Suite 818, Chicago, IL 60603.