Skip to main content

Tributes to Richard Pflum (1932-2018); poems by Stephen R. Roberts, Jared Carter, George Kalamaras, Liza Hyatt, Jeffrey Owen Pearson, Michael Brockley, B. Childs-Helton, Frederick Michaels, Karyl Murschel, Harold Taylor, and Rosemary Freedman

Today (July 2) would have been the 86th birthday anniversary of Richard Pflum, a longtime fixture in the Indianapolis poetry community. He died on March 15. Several friends and colleagues honored him by submitting poems. Dick, as close friends called him, was a founding member of the Writers' Center of Indiana (now Indiana Writers Center). He ran the semi-monthly Poetry Salon, a feedback group for poets, and emceed the monthly An Evening With the Muse, which featured a guest poet and an open mic. He loved to frequent open mics in the city, often garnering respect from spoken-word artists. His collections of poetry include Richard Pflum: A Dream of Salt (Raintree Press), A Strange Juxtaposition of Parts (Writers' Center Press, Indianapolis), The Haunted Refrigerator and Other Poems (Pudding House Press), Listening With Others: Poems Under the Musical Influence (The Muse Rules), and Some Poems to Be Read Out Loud: New and Selected Poems (Chatter House Press). Besides poetry, Richard loved classical music and astronomy. 

by Stephen R. Roberts 

                                          “The edge is so close to a beginning.” Richard Pflum 

Sitting in the doctor’s office waiting. 
This is the second room I’ve been put in. 
The first, I assume, was general waiting. 
But after twenty minutes of perusing 
outdated Urinary Tract Health magazines 
and an old issue of Time with an article 
concerning the plight of aging baby boomers, 
I am moved to a more exclusive, smaller room. 

It’s embellished with faded medical degrees. 
I can’t quite decipher the graduation dates. 
But I can see fingerprints on a jar of cotton balls. 
And, on the desk beside me, what appears to be, 
a collection of possibly used tongue depressors. 
A glint from the wastebasket, I imagine to be 
a syringe wrapped in a hazy ball of gauze. 
Sitting here, where I finally may see the doctor, 
I gather my thoughts. Sharpen a list of questions. 

Perfect an opening statement as to why I’m here, 
waiting. Though he should know. Three messages 
left for three days on his voicemail. Or he left me. 
I am not sure which, or what answers he’ll provide. 
This visit could turn out to be another false positive. 
Or whatever the opposite of that is. 

The quote is from a comment Dick made during one of my last visits to see him. We each immediately thought it was worthy of being in a poem somewhere. 

by Jared Carter 

Now where to turn? And how to leave
          alone upon 
The bier what we have come to grieve? 
          Some antiphon 

Still haunts us, since those elegies 
          meant to control 
Or fend off sorrow, fail to seize  
          the moment. Whole, 

His life was, while these syllables 
          will not outlast 
This wilderness intractable 
          that holds him fast. 

First published in The Galway Review. 

Walking Through the Night Trees, I Think of Your Poems
and How They Still Light the Woods of My Words
by George Kalamaras

for Richard Pflum, 1932 – 2018

Too many years, Dick. The distance between 1979 and 2013 is almost the length of the waddle weight of a Galápagos tortoise giving up its rock for the salt-heavy sea.


I wish we didn’t have to die, I said that evening into the washing river light. Lightning bugs going on and off, as if the Himalayan yogis are right—that we come into and out of these bodies again and again.


What a wonderful autumn in 1979, when at a party together with you in Bloomington, someone told me Robert Bly said of you that evening, He has a face of perfect peace.


What I love most about Indiana are the dying autumn fields. Yellowwood Forest when the falling leaves layer the ground with scent. Walking in the woods with my hound dog, knowing what she smells is fresh and fecund, even in its death.


They used to say that the milk snake waits in the fields and sucks the milk of cows when they lie down to sleep. You called the world A Dream of Salt—a sea-heavy phrase into which we might all lie down.


Let me say it this way: we are born into the tongue and unto it. We know there is a word that, if perfected, we might step into and through—and enter the world.


Sometimes I think the best word is not a word at all but the sound of hound dogs running the woods at dusk, calling the moon up from the swampy muck—full and wet and soggy with the dark’s dark.


It had been thirty-four years and cross-country travel since we’d talked, and then the lovely calm of your phone call. And I came to Indianapolis to read my poems when you asked. And read them directly into your more-than-peaceful voice.


You are buried in each of my words, Dick—the kindness of an older poet who listened to my fledgling poems in the seventies as if I was a newly risen moon dropping particles of myself into shagbark hickory. Sycamore. Elm.


Now it is you who is dropping particles of yourself here, then there. It is you walking off into the light-laden swamp. Something round is there, moon-heavy, that you have stepped into. You, whose words lantern-light the dark. Making the woods both larger and smaller than what we can possibly see. Our words, small as they seem, larger now because you’ve said them first—luminous—for decades into your poems. Through. Into the damp places of the stars. Into cypress beards and shagbark trees in the swampy dark. The swampy moon-glow of the dark’s dark.

Dinner Party
by Richard Pflum 

When she invited me to her dinner party how could 
I tell her the menu would not do? 
She had been in ecstasy about the little 
000000000000watercress sandwiches, 
000000000000the tiny sugar cookies on silver salvers 
000000000000the colorful liquers on cordial glasses 
and later the fine dark coffee to be served demitasse. 

How could I tell her I needed, indeed demanded 
000000000000so much more than that? 
That for me, tireless preparations were the order, 
000000000000that great slabs of fat and meat 
must be hewn like granite from mountains of beef and pork, 
000000000000that whole orchards must be stripped bare of fruit, 

whole dairies put into service for their creams and cheeses, 
brewers and distillers made to work three shifts, 
bakers, to sweat day and night, rolling out their dough, 
the economy of the country to be decimated if necessary, 
that rich steaming kettles (carried by four men at a time), 
000000000000might replenish any place or bowl. 

I thought of this when she invited me 
to dinner on Sunday afternoon, and 
asked me not to forget my poems.  

The Poet's Food
by Liza Hyatt 

                      (Written while attending Richard Pflum’s late-1980’s Poetry Salon) 

We meet at the house of the poet. 
We bring our poems, 
and he offers us criticism and hors d’oeuvres
For criticism he says, 
“I like irony!” 
 and “Give me an image that lives, 
a mysterious image that is alive. 
This poem needs more liquid, 
more sweat, more secretions. 
And grit. 
I want to crunch this poem between my teeth, 
then suck the pulp from it.” 
But his hors d’oeuvres are not poems. 
He prefers Pringles, 
stacked in their canister 
like a page of clichés, 
and Bugles, salty, airy cornucopias squirted out by machine, 
with dip in a plastic tub. 
And before we begin he asks, 
“Would anyone like some Mountain Dew?”

Poem With Big Feet
by Richard Pflum 

This is the poem that walks on big feet, 
that stomps on all smaller poems, that 
says, "get out of my way," when 
it saunters through the barroom door. 

This is the poem that interrupts 
the conversation you are having with 
your girlfriend and talks her into 
dancing and then leaving without you, 
so you must go home or dance by yourself. 

This is the same poem which sits down 
beside you the next day and eats all of 
your French fries and wants a big bite 
from your cheeseburger. That gives you 
free advice about your terminal inadequacies 
and offers you a gun, though it admits, 
"this is a coward's way out." 

This is also the poem that tells you 
any greatness which you might achieve 
in this world is due to it, while 
all failures are strictly your own.

This is the poem which is always 
suffering because no one appreciates 
its true merit, a poem that knows it 
could have been a millionaire or an 
important politician had it chosen 
to be something else. 

This is the poem I avoid trying 
to write though it's always around 
beating its chest, complaining; 
intimidating the lyrical, quieter, 
often deeper poems. 

Still,because its feet are so big 
and its space requirements enormous, 
perhaps it can't help stomping on other 
poems and things. Perhaps it is 
not even cruel, just deprived; 
leaving grown up without lessons 
on the cello, and never enough 
cheeseburgers on the backyard patio. 

Pearson Argues Gershwin, Pflum Insists Mahler:
A Rhapsody for Richard
by Jeffrey Owen Pearson 

Richard travels the same way I listen to Mahler— 
whole sections pass by in oblivion. What can I say? 
Gershwin makes a better companion. The road glides 
like a Tin Pan Alley piano. A rhapsodic trumpet. 
A languid oboe like a liquid out-of-body 
odyssey on the Seine. 

Pflum gets into his gray People’s Car 
and by celestial guidance ends up 
wherever the car ends up. Never mind 
the necessary turns. The traffic. The lights.  
Maybe Bach’s Variations on repeat. Maybe 
Mahler’s ersterbend, his dying-away. The 9th. 

For me Gershwin tunes spill 
over riverbanks and onto the shore 
like riparian monkeys on the Ganges. 
An excess of mangoes and dates. 
Of saris and scarves and carpets 
à la a Bollywood finale. The sky 
the disappearing scent of lemons. 

Maybe Venus is setting, and later Mars 
will rise before dawn to battle the sun 
and lose once again. There is only one 
eminence of light. Pity those suns 
from billions of miles whose light 
dies in the back of our eyes. 

Mahler begins his 1st with a solo tuba 
like the cosmos waking up. 
In the middle, a funeral march 
sounding an off-key Frère Jacques. 
Then a little chaos theory and a whole 
lot of love love love. 

On the night JFK was killed 
my father drove halfway across Illinois 
and back with his arm out the window. 
After I had a child of my own, 
my mom told me she undressed 
and took him to bed to wrap 
his freezing skin against her body. 

I wonder who warms the stargazer on winter 
nights when planets align inauspiciously, 
the brass eyepiece fogging at the heat 
of an single iris? The icy telescope a cold bed- 
maiden. How many cloud-covered nights 
must he wait to see Jupiter ride Libra’s 
scales and turn Zubeneschamali green? 

Richard tinkers with poems like vestiges 
of Inuit myth where people could change 
into animals and animals into people. 
They knew the same words and spoke 
the same powerful language. What they said 
came to pass. I can see Richard lumbering  
as a bear almost as tall as the sky because God 
hears him and lowers heaven. 

I insist Gershwin. Pflum says he sees Mahler. 
Now Mahler’s sad adagios play in my mind. 
Spawned in deep forest springs and mountain’s 
hard nurseries, they sing as true as distant stars 
in frigid skies. The tragedy of death composed 
before it happens. His own child. Her star- 
like eyes. His prophet’s guilt. Any death. 
The 9th certainty. Say it! Your own. 

As editor of an issue of Flying Island, Dick was adamant I change “They’re singing Gershwin on the Ganges” in a poem to Mahler, and I refused. The poem lies dormant in the reject pile to this day. Lately I’ve been listening to Mahler, and along the journey have returned to some of Leonard Bernstein’s lectures. He was a treasure in a time when television aired some wonderful programs before the dumbing down of America. Zubeneschamali (zoo-BEN-ess-sha-MAH-lee) is the brightest star in the constellation Libra and the only star to appear green in color. Mahler refused to number Das Lied von der Erde, very much a symphonic work in nature, because of the curse of the ninth, attributed to Beethoven’s death having completed only nine symphonies. Mahler’s Ninth Symphony written the following year is considered the most sublime meditation on death. His daughter’s. His own failing heart. The death of the artist/hero. He died never completing his tenth. 

The Richard Milton Pflum Eulogy With Imaginary
Line Breaks and Random Enjambments
by Michael Brockley 

This was supposed to be your elegy, “The Dick Pflum July 2 Cento,” but I had a visit from a black hole last night. As you can imagine, I’m back to square one, trying to remember how to pronounce “Dvorak” and “Hippocrates.” Wondering whether flotsam or jetsam would win the popular vote in a battle of the harmonicas at a county fair. The black hole insisted I spend the rest of the night listening to a rum-voiced blues woman contralto songs about blood moons and highjacked stars. You never know when you might have to use the word “astrophile” in a conversation with unobservable light. Or when a tidbit about Holst might prove to be handy. I entertained the black hole with a monologue about a Bigfoot family that raised jackalopes for the tourist trade. It turns out scraps of ghazals and villanelles have transmogrified into my wallet. Arranged in chronological order, they celebrate the life of the woman who invented rock-and-roll with a guitar made from a gravedigger’s shovel and a highwayman’s string ties. With my flawed ears, I can’t hear the music of the spheres when the Black Holes debut their 9th symphony on the rings of Saturn. But right now, I’m tapping my toes as the blues woman shreds “The Gravedigger’s Shovel and String Ties Blues.” A Stagger Lee revenge borne on the angelicas of a ruined voice. You might be keeping time with eclipse études, conducting your own poetic harmony, while I rehearse “Hey, Joe.“ A tad off-key, as you’d suspect. About now, both of us might savor a nectar sweeter than absinthe. We are stardust, after all. 

Sleeping With My Telescope
by Richard Pflum 

It is a chill metallic passion even on hot, 

humid July nights. For it seems the stars 
are substantially cold as I gaze, eye to 
polished eye, entwined in black night clothes, 
(the wrinkled sheets of pure space-time, so 
remote from diurnal time). There, everything 
appears to stray from its sidereal gait so 
I must transport myself far, either by sight 
or imagination, when needing to know; 
“Is it the same passion that fuses flesh, 
births the stars, makes us prodigals of 
vision: this light, our motion, the cosmic 
wind; all that energy and ardor, both up 
and around ... outside my open window, 
which also swirls inside, allows us some 
share of each other’s gravity?” 

The sun mobilizes us by day and then 
I think of warmer lovers, the sweetness of 
flowers and perfume, real arms and legs 
ready for embrace. Human shapes may make 
a comfortable fit as when eyes are pressed 
in shadow and light is eclipsed behind 
a shoulder or in the soft valley between 
breasts. But tonight I drowse against 
my telescope, cheek to cold cheek, 
supported by three sturdy feet in rubber 
slippers, while her flawless glass eye 
attempts to show me everything. She 
may be a bit of an exhibitionist, a freak, 
a wanton, but I am thankful for her when 
flesh runs dry, and we bathe together 
in this milky river above our heads. 

by B. Childs-Helton 

That time in uncertain Indiana spring 
you fell asleep under branches perforated 
with stars, somewhere in-between the small hours 
and the chilly dew of weak light, fortunately 
on a tarp that the other writers at the party 
were not too drunk to fold up over you. 
You slept it off, we all wandered away, 
and somehow the usual sacred river ran 
beneath our years and mostly out of sight, 
borne by the planet into the warring dark 
that so adores the killing of our words, 
and still you wrote. 
Sketched that quirky sternness in the air 
with pianist's fingers 
pointing out in salon 
what a poem requires to survive 
outside the walls of vanished state hospitals 
or the haunted business parks of empty cubes, 
when again we come to, on the familiar deck 
at sea in the deep night of metaphor, 
where I picture you escaped to, watching stars 
in that hidden sky under hospice blankets, 
having won your way to mystery. 

Last Words
by Frederick Michaels 

These are last words to be spoken; 
here, in the dying echoes of day, 
beneath sky’s rust-stained canopy, 
tasting sweetness of final phrases. 
They linger gently upon pursed lips, 
yet soon turn to sorrowful bitterness. 
Cloaked in life’s impending darkness, 
we sense eternity’s unbridgeable gulf.  

by Karyl Murschel 

Light beckons, beyond 
pain’s darkest hours. 
One last shimmering 
as eternity reclaims 
an impatient soul. *

Let’s Pop the Cork
by Harold Taylor 

Let’s pop the cork on the ginger ale and laugh as fizz goes everywhere 
clean up and settle in to listen to Some Poems to be Read Out Loud. 
Let the grand old man of the Indianapolis poetry scene read his latest work. 
Afflicted by indefatigable happiness, 
who knew? 
Contagious it afflicts us too. 
His gait is slow, but his wits are quick; 
        a mind for science and a heart for poetry, 
        a mind for science and a heart for people. 
Who else could figure out that his newly published book 
reads better from back to front? 
Who else would say, "Let me know if I go overtime or bore you"? 
The time flew, Richard, and boredom only afflicts the small-minded. 
I didn’t see any of those there. 
Only poets feasting on poetry, 
richer for having been Pflummoxed. 

Written in memory of An Evening With Muse reading. 

"Shabby Magnificence"

Rosemary Freedman

He has a quiet passion, in ordinary speech, that floats into fantasy and pathos, and by the time you are through reading, you have been beguiled … your reality imposed on by his own shabby magnificence.”—Willis Barnstone

For Dick Pflum

You told us of the haunting tunnels
at Central State Hospital, a psychiatric facility.
The ghostly cries that left you wondering
if you really worked there—or merely thought you did.
The scraped walls with chipping plaster of Paris.
The patients screaming like trapped foxes and ermines.

Always there have been those people who silently scream
What you see is what you get!” Their egos a paradox.
Dick, your “shabby magnificence” still leaves an aura
of contradiction. Like Willa Cather’s My Antonia,
you grew old as most grow old—with no pretense
but with much confidence. Deli-macaroni-eating, gray-headed,
and loved enough that there was no need for fancy jackets.
You were built for comfort. I did not know if you were comfortable,
if you were happy—if you ever found
within yourself that perfect poem or two.

When your eyes closed that last time
all the stars shined to salute you—
and all the orchestras played your
favorite music, and fireworks crackled
the sound of angels being machine-gunned.
Your soul rose through all of this—
your shabby magnificence rising
in a tremendous splendor, your rugged
hands reaching out, to touch those stars
you had watched from afar for oh so many years.

Reading and Writing Poetry
by Richard Pflum 

The more poetry I read, the freer I feel to be myself. 

Even the bad poetry seems to work. I can see all 
the possibilities then and it doesn’t matter if I’m 
a screaming baby or a lethargic old man. It’s all 
still there, a whole life which can be believed, 
lived either backward or forward. Whether a lemon 
drop or a moldering husk, the more I read, the more 
I can see everything is both an ocean and a void: 
the odor of long stored linen in a cedar chest in an 
old house on an old street in the city, or the new 
house in the burbs where outside a golden retriever 
stands guard beside a split rail fence separating 
your property from someone else’s cleared field. 

In this autumn I discover poetry is not a thing but process, 
not a long list of nouns but some very hair-raising verbs, 
life upholding actions to be taken so that you’ll no 
longer need to scratch open your wounds in anger nor 
feel a pat on the back of the head by some reassuring 
Angel. And you’ll no longer have to hide in a cage, be 
someone else’s animal. There’ll be all these opposing 
paths to take, where things both do and do not matter. 

I’ve finally reached a point where reading a poem and 
writing a poem are the same. It isn’t significant whose 
name appends the poem. Subjects are the same. My faux 
poem, “Falling Off an Elevator from the Ninetieth Floor 
on Mid-Summer’s Eve,” is the same as Shakespeare‘s 
Sonnet CLVI. Ask him, he’ll tell you. 

“How?” you enquire, “Isn’t he supposed to be dead?” 
Yes, I say, but he’ll talk anyway, he just loves to jabber. 
Bury that dumb ballpoint of yours into paper and he’ll 
resurface ... say some pretty profound and beautiful 
things too. It’s all up to you (but it really isn’t, of course). 
I’ve just read this Jack Gilbert guy so I really know. 
And also Wallace Stevens, that old billy-goat of a man 
with a buffalo head. They both knew all of the secrets: 
the mysteries of the North and the South, the be all of, 
of-all, and also what’s in between.