Friends, Poetry

Good People: An Elegy for Chris

He did not grow out of the cultivated earth of a literary tradition. He was Texas dirt, sunburnt and scarred. He banged into poetry sometime in his twenties and instead of slinking back and skittering away, he grafted it onto his body and sprouted there, all new.
He was not a particularly good writer when I met him. It did not matter. He drove his pen into the page, hammered those rough words out on a stage, and decided to be a poet. Bukowski and Ginsberg and Ferlighetti elbowed out the last of the complacency. He wrote of dark stink and revolution. He riffed off the speeches of great leaders with only a vague notion about how to organize a movement. Something more, something growling, pulsed through him, throbbing, feeding his voice.
He was so young.
We wrote together. In Dallas, on the cracked vinyl of diner booths, we wrote and wrote and wrote. One of us would suggest a prompt. We would write frantically for 10 minutes, read aloud without commenting, then write for 12, read aloud, write for 20. We could pass hours this way, whole lifetimes, galaxies dying off and starting again, no sense anymore of where one story birthed the next, one theme then the next, the rhythm of impulse moving in synchronicity over lukewarm Dr. Pepper and tattered pages.
For three months, maybe four, we were this toothed pair, fighting about everything and nothing. On Friday nights well past bedtime, we drove down I-75 to the slam in Deep Ellum at the Blind Lemon next to the auto glass dealer. We competed against our own team-mates and our own demon for the coveted perfect 30. He would get up there and hiss and hum his fury for that cash prize, barely enough to pay for two drinks. On Tuesdays, we went to Insomnia and took the mic just for the hell of it. On Sunday afternoons, we holed up in a windowless bar and team-wrote with a scruffy menagerie of rockers and poets and screenplay writers under a low shroud of smoke.
He was up for anything. He jumped at the chance to walk through the Dallas Museum of Art. He would pull over at a techno club well past midnight to dance among the goth teens. When his car was towed, we passed two hours in line at the flickering mausoleum of the impound lot, coming up with characters and laughing with our whole bellies. He discovered German barbecue places off the interstate, tried alligator tail at the cajun place, and introduced me to a proper Texas cheeseburger. We drove to Austin and crashed on a friend’s couch. He meandered wide-eyed through the State House, a place he had never visited in the lost years. He tracked down his state representative to ask her about road projects in poor communities.
I loved him a little and he loved me wild. His run-down pad off Walnut Hill had posters of Limp Bizkit on the wall and a full Nintendo game system he could barely afford. He had a twin bed. A sour couch. No savings. No degree. No plan. No pedigree.
But on that day my grandmother had the ladies over for bridge and he swung by to pick me up, he tapped some source of sugared light I had only just begun to sense.  Never has a group of octogenarians so quickly puddled into fits of giggles.
He was complete already, and I didn’t know it. Neither did he.
He wanted to plan Big Things. Community-wide bilingual free poetry shows. Demonstrations in the park for funding for arts in the schools. He was firing on all cylinders with no direction of travel.
Except for one: Poetry.
He dreamed writing. He woke writing. When I urged him to slow down, to read, the practice the craft, I could see his jaw tense with the effort. He did not want to measure his pace. He did, though, because all suggestions were fair game.  Then he would return to just writing writing writing. He got better and better.
He treated every other uncertain artist exactly as he treated his own self. “Get up there. You’ve got something to say.” He never let anyone sit in the back and play it safe. He did not wait for perfection or an invitation. He crashed the party. He grabbed everyone within reach and carried them with him.
“I believe the world is beautiful,” wrote Roque Dalton. “And that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.” Christopher Ya’ir Lane lived this.
Alas, no journey unfolds without flat tires and black smoke. Back then, a dozen years ago in the Dallas night, there were lies and drugs and there was another woman. I was leaving anyway to head back to Vermont to help a friend with a baby. So, the heat burned to embers and then ash. Sometime later, I heard that he had stumbled down the rabbit hole. The details were vague. He moved to Arizona. His siblings were involved. Who knows? I failed to reach out. Bruises, even if only to the ego, can make a heart cold.
I found him again virtually, years later after I was gone and back and gone again a few times around. He had his own beautiful family. A wife, a baby in his arms, then another. In the intervening decade, he had not stopped writing.
What did I say? He was not a good writer?
Now I have to admit that I didn’t understand the first thing about good writing. Chris had something to teach me I am only just now starting to wrap my mind around. Good is only this:
Doing it.
Just doing it, over and over, then doing it some more. He did not stop, from what I can tell, for longer than half a breath during that time. He had become a great poet. And what’s more, he had let that fire and fury carry him into projects that would make the Espada and Angeolou and even Roque Dalton proud. He put together youth slams. He became an organizer for the Alzheimer’s poetry project. He bridged the gap between rural and urban artists. He wrote and wrote, but he did not just do it from the back of the cave. He was a people’s poet. He shared, learned to make things happen, turned that charm into currency that could open the door to the ones for whom a closed door, or no door, is standard fare.
Christopher Ya’ir Lane was a far better writer and man than I gave him credit for. He never stopped. I wish I had known him later, that I had gotten over the small peevishness of our parting and welcomed him as a friend and as the gifted teacher he became. That is my great regret. But I am thankful that he inhabits a small moment in time and a living corner of my heart.
It is hard to know how to honor someone when the loss is so fresh. I can only say that this man’s life work is both humbling and inspiring. He did not wait around for the world to tell him he was good enough. He simply decided to love something, to make it multiply, and to cast the seeds of it far and wide.
So, for Chris, who shared that burning moment with me, I make this commitment:
I aim to crack open my rigid perceptions about what makes a piece, a project, or a person worth consideration. I aim to be impatient, to open my throat, to have the courage to believe in ink and voice to carry the art to life even if my doubt would surely sink it. I am to urge everyone I meet to follow their own bright pulse, blow past the doubts and the critics, and burn big, and burn loud.
Christopher Ya’ir was the best writing companion a girl could have during a fit of Dallas fever. I am grateful he unfurled his passion in my presence and showed me how it’s done. I ache for a world without him, and my heart goes out to his two beautiful little ones and to the wife who carried him over.
Goodbye, Chris. Your voice is with me, splitting open now in this turned soil, reaching for my own roots and feeding me the heat I did not even know I lacked. You live forever.

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