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The Words of b: william bearhart

I’ve been thinking about the distance between friends and family here and across the country. There are never good words to tell you a friend or family member has died. Early Sunday evening, I learned a talented poet and friend was gone. I was scrolling on my phone in the truck on the way to walk beside the Columbia River. Heid Erdrich, a talented Ojibwe poet and editor in Minneapolis, wrote “the sweet poetic being Bryan Bearhart is no more.”

I first read Bryan’s work in 2011, in American Ghost: Poets on Life after Industry, a slim collection Lillian Waller edited. My poem and Bryan’s are back to back. His poems “Cuspate” and “Ricing: A Love Story” touch family hurts and his Ojibwe foodways.  

His work was tender and unflinching. In “The Blue Jay and the Tulip Field: What Started as a Letter to Saeed Jones,” (published in 2018 in The Rumpus) Bryan wrote “I get the switch of yellow tulle on sunny satin as a boy’s hips/sashay in the upstairs bedroom/far away from his father who wrote a drunken note/to a mother on a paper plate/“Take this kid back with you.”

In 2015 when I went to the Institute of American Indian Arts, a new student in the MFA program, Bryan was the first person I encountered when I stepped on campus. He was a direct descendent of the St Croix Chippewa of Wisconsin, a poker dealer when he wasn’t writing poetry. He had serious health problems when we met that gave him a particular vulnerability that I recognized. He had major surgery, and we watched him grow stronger. I haven’t heard how Bryan passed, but he wrote about psych wards and edging back and forth on the line between life and death. For his birthday in January, he held a fundraiser for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

It has been awhile since a member of my immediate family died, eight years actually, since I felt the mix of pain for the person whose dreams and joys were interrupted, and the loss of the shared memories that almost seem to fade in color.

Reading Bryan’s work is heart opening. He writes our private vulnerabilities onto the page. In “When the night unravels this night becomes” the speaker says, “I can’t make sense of this mess in my head.” In the Boston Review, esteemed poet Natalie Diaz, Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian community, writes, “Yes, darkness, bearhart’s poems say, but also and always light.” 

Bryan makes me hope to be a person who is tender and generous, willing to share inner concerns. He was accessible, full of wit and humor.  

Bryan’s poetry can be found in Boston Review, North American Review, Prairie Schooner and Tupelo Quarterly. He reads from Love Sick, the thesis for his MFA at IAIA on Vimeo. He’ll be included in When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through, a Norton Anthology edited by the US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, a member of the Mvskoke Nation.

I think of the poems Bryan had yet to write, the book his friends were waiting for. I’m thankful for the beauty he left in the world. I’ll burn cedar and pray for Bryan’s family and friends. I’ll try to be kind, tuned in to the burdens friends carry.