On a recent Sunday night in El Paso, about 30 Basketball in the Barrio kids followed a musician to a small house on Louisville Avenue. Right outside the bedroom door, they read a poem, “Basketball is a sacred way to grow old,” to the man lying inside who had written it. As they read the poem, thunder and rain shook the windows.
The man lying in the bedroom was Bobby Byrd. A few months ago, he had celebrated his 80th birthday in the backyard of this house, with live music and poetry. The day after they read his poem to him, he died.
With a perpetual attitude of puzzled surprise at how it all turned out, he had led a damn good life. Happily, lovingly, productively married for decades; the father of three wonderful children, one of whom served as a representative on the El Paso City Council for years. Lee and Bobby had not only produced a beautiful family, but had also established Cinco Puntos Press in 1985. Cinco Puntos (named after their neighborhood) mattered, because it published many Borderland writers, often Hispanic or indigenous, whom the world had ignored but who were now awarded prizes by the world.
Lots of beautiful voices that we heard only thanks to Lee and Bobby, and their bookstore was a big feature of their neighborhood. The National Endowment for the Arts once promised them a $7,500 grant to publish a children’s book by the leader of an indigenous uprising in Chiapas — then cowardly withdrew it for fear of offending the Mexican government. They published it anyway.
I knew a little about the Byrds a long time ago, as mutual friends of the poets Keith and Heloise Wilson. Over the past decade I’ve gotten to know (and love) them better, and since COVID, Bobby is a welcome addition to our poetry workshop (ZOOM). I hope Bobby would mind if I reprint here the middle of one of his poems, “How does it feel not to be here?”
And what’s it like not even being there? —
this here would not be here,
not here, not now, my world, everything
gone, nothing, empty,
the darkness of my mother’s womb
pushed me through, a burst
amniotic fluid in light,
like this light here, like this now,
a dream, which is not a dream,
the same dream my father whispered
in my little boy’s ears, the day
so many years ago his plane flew
too close to the ground
crashed and caught fire,
goodbye, he said, maybe he said,
maybe he didn’t say, leaving that light,
this terrestrial light, this human light.
And now you’re gone, my friend! Your wonderful children and grandchildren miss your touch, your laughter, your easy delight in their whims and yours. You’ve gone through life your way, stubbornly loyal to truth, beauty, family and friends, and managed to do a lot of good while remaining humble and spontaneous.
Is it Ferlinghetti’s dog howling?
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Las Cruces resident Peter Goodman writes, takes pictures and occasionally practices law. His blog on http://soledadcanyon.blogspot.com/ contains additional information about this column.