Each week, the bear dons his straw hat, stuffs his poems into a tote bag, and makes his slow, shuffling way down Main Street to do his duty as the Johnny Appleseed of poetry.
The good people of Rockland, Maine, have come to expect it-- although, most don’t realize he’s a bear. To most people, he’s a man of perhaps seventy, with round glasses, hunched shoulders, a gray mustache and eyes that drift sideways. They mistake his brown fur for an ordinary fleece jacket, his paws for hands. It takes another bear to recognize him as a rare species of Ursus scrivnaris, Writer Bear, connoisseur of berries, honey, and Russian poetry.
It’s a clear autumn day and, as is his custom, the bear—who goes by the name of Kendall—walks first to the end of his short driveway, looking both ways to make sure that no cars are coming. Satisfied, he walks back to his car, turns the key and ever so slowly drives the quarter mile into the town by the sea.
The poem he passes out is called Hot Food on a Cold Night. It was written on the back of a place mat at China Coast, a strip-mall Chinese restaurant on Route 1, where he likes to talk to the waitresses and slurp lo mein.
The wind is biting
This far north of the wall
Winter arrives tonight
We shiver in Autumn clothes
Clouds block a view
Of the stars
Of all the birds
Only the crow calls
So near Harbin
He’s not sure where Harbin is--probably China or Russia. He’s never actually traveled to either (bears aren’t normally allowed on planes), but he’s come quite close, through the books he reads late on winter nights.
It was walking through the snow as a boy on one such night when Kendall first decided to be a writer. He was on his way to have supper at a neighbor’s house— “grilled crabmeat and tuna fish sandwiches that taste exquisite with tall glasses of milk”—and walking through the snow drifts that turned his cheeks red, he thought, “Somehow I’ve got to learn to describe the stinging outer pain of the snow and the inner glow of grilled crabmeat.”
Kendall has literary blood:
he’s a relative of both the Merriams of dictionary fame and of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. His first poem was written on a whim for a newspaper contest when he was about thirty. Later, he set up a table at the local fair with a sign that said: “Poems while you wait—any subject, any length, rhymed or unrhymed— five cents a line.” Soon, he was passing out poetry all over town.
Years from now, when his soul has joined with the Great Cave Bear, he would like his epitaph to say, "He Gave Away Books". Kendall donated 1,400 of his Russian books to a university in Mongolia; a copy of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s biography to a young woman in a bakery bore a startling resemblance to the poet; and a thick tome about China to the waitress at China Coast. Once, he loaded his arms with books from a bookstore and handed them out to people in their cars while they lingered at a red light.
Often, Kendall writes for and about people in Rockland: for Pete, the lobsterman who was diagnosed with a brain tumor; for Gary and Kim, who own a bookstore; for the doctor he’s seen that day; for Patsy and Cheryl at the art supply shop; for the neighbor who fashioned a copper top for the Merriam family’s old kitchen table. His poems are a mirror of Main Street.
Kendall inches his car into a parking space in town, sprawling across two full parking spaces. He opens the door and peers down over his glasses at the white lines. “Good enough,” he says.
The first stop is to the art supply shop, where Patsy smiles happily when he enters, sneezing through an allergy attack. Still sneezing, she makes 125 copies of Hot Food on a Cold Night, which will go into a bin with Kendall’s name on it, right under a crayon drawing of a fox with pointy legs taped to the wall that says “To Patsy, an artist Fox. Love, Kendall.”
While she makes the copies, Kendall walks to the café across the street and orders a pastrami sandwich, half on a plate, half in a bag, to go, with a cookie. The rest of the sandwich is for Patsy, because Kendall worries that sometimes she doesn’t eat enough during her shifts. He jokes with the pretty young cashier, and when he smiles his brows shoot up in a look of something like maniacal glee.
Back at the art supply shop, Patsy hands him the stack of fresh white pages, still warm, and he puts them into the tote bag. She waves; he’s off.
Heading north with his twitchy-knee gait, hands a poem to the owner of the Reading Corner, who smiles his thanks because he’s on the phone. Next is the jewelry store, and then the Lighthouse Foundation with pious Nina at the register whom he tries to make laugh. A bit further up is Jane at Maine Author’s Publishing, which prints Kendall’s poetry collections. As always, Jane asks him to read Hot Food aloud, and he obliges in an unadorned voice with yawning Maine vowels. The last line is drowned out by the telephone.
“How dare the phone ring during that,” Jane says. She is effusive. “You’re right, it is like a haiku.”
At least two poems go to the nice women at the Land Trust, of which he is a member. (He paid his dues not with cash but with brownies, made with Katherine Hepburn’s recipe.) Next is Bea’s hot dog stand, where he sometimes gets a free lunch; the olive oil boutique; the organic restaurant; the graphic design company; two more jewelry stores; and the beauty salon, which he likes because it smells like flowers and because the women who work there are very beautiful. There’s Suzuki’s Sushi Bar; several art galleries; the Atlantic Baking Company (where the new cashier couldn’t understand that he wasn’t selling or buying anything); and the organization for the protection of puffins. Then the art museum, where they tape Kendall’s poems to the fridge in the break room, and where he once brought a gift of a dozen rolls and a dozen butters, because he thought they’d like it.
Only a few times has Kendall been rebuffed.
One bank asked him to stop coming because it disrupted their flow. At the cell phone store, the clerks said that they didn’t like poetry. Kendall never went back.
Near the end of his route is the post office. Five years ago the postal commissioner, Bill Geary, was the subject of a poem called The Commander:
He stands at watch
Like the Commander of a great ship
Responsible for the forward offense
Of government plans
He can give directions for passports
Or the simplest love letters
He makes thousands of decisions a day...
Folks in Rockland say that when the poem was published, Bill glowed with pride. People began calling him “Commander” at work. His attitude changed; no longer a mere civil servant, he was a proud captain, navigating his ship of mail through treacherous bureaucratic waters.
While Kendall’s poems are almost always laudatory, some people are more at ease with being written about than others. It’s an uneasy, exposed feeling, like having your gaze held for longer than a few beats, long enough for blinking to be an escape.
When light fades and the wind is chilly off the bay, the route is complete. Kendall returns to his car, still sprawled across the parking lot. There’s a fluttering napkin tucked under the windshield wiper that says, “You park like an asshole.” He puts it on the dashboard and drives home, acknowledging that bears, while gifted, are not natural drivers.
Secretly, Kendall suspects there is something very special about him.
The muse comes quickly and speaks clearly, and he can polish off a poem in half an hour. Still, he has yet to become famous. Kendall tells of a publisher who rejected him many years ago: “You have talent,” the publisher said, “but your mind is so warped you’ll never be a big seller, so you might as well stick to being poor all your life and be discovered after you die.” So when Kendall became Rockland’s first Poet Laureate in 2010, it was an honor he took very seriously.
For a bear, he’s also quite prolific: besides poetry collections, he’s written art and literature criticism for the newspaper, more letters to the editor than the editor might have appreciated, a quasi-religious book of stories with slightly adult themes called God is a Fox, an irreverent guide to Maine, a manifesto entitled FREEDOM FOR ALL BEARS, a comic book about the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, a speech about madness, a stream-of-consciousness memoir, a dictionary of lobstering terms, and tried several times to sustain a regular newsletter on topics that might be of intellectual or spiritual interest to his subscribers (in which he once attempted to define the word “fuck”). His goal as a writer is to be poignant.
After college, where he met a beautiful woman named Phyllis, he enlisted in the army—mostly to impress Phyllis’ father, the army chaplain. He was in the service for three months and twenty-two days. The last days came quickly, were scattered, seemed absurd: his superiors tried to get him to sign a blank piece of paper, and, suspicious, he refused. Why would they insist on something so crazy? They took him into a room and beat him, and still he refused, and in the end he never signed that blank piece of paper. Instead, he was sent to the psych ward of the army hospital.
They told Kendall he was a paranoid schizophrenic, and he was hospitalized several more times. He has been straightjacketed, strapped down, jailed, and sat on to be kept under control.
Later, some doctors would call him manic depressive. Others said bipolar. The doctors use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which has 943 pages of rules on what disease is what; but while the DSM-IV changes every few years, Kendall is still Kendall.
Phyllis visited him in the V.A. hospital. He was honorably discharged, and later he and Phyllis were married in a ceremony conducted by her father, in a church on Main Street in Rockland, which is now a thrift store that sells rusty sleds, life-size statues of famous basketball players, and a holographic Bingo slot machine.
One of his greatest loves, besides Phyllis, is a woman named Janina Lewandowska, the late Polish fighter pilot whose plane was captured during World War II. Kendall has spent the last thirty years studying her, writing about her: Janina was taken prisoner, beaten and interrogated, the only woman to have been killed in the Katyn massacre with 20,000 other souls.
He loves her because she was brave and beautiful and strong, and because she was not only a pilot but an officer, unusual for a woman. He wants her to be known, to be taught in history classes, for her memory to be honored. In 1981 he wrote Hymn to Janina Lewandowska, a collection of long-form poems, which was smuggled into Poland, past the censors and circulated by the underground press into the secret corners of the resistance. Ten years later, parts of Hymn were used in an anthology about the massacre. Janina died in a prison camp; he wants to set her free.
An image, seared in his brain:
a small bear in a metal cage, a roadside attraction to lure cash-carrying customers to the store next door. Step right up, come on over, feed it, for a fee.
Here I am
the dancing bear
of this schizophrenic circus
what tricks shall I perform for you?
shall I gibber and scream?
take off my fur?
communicate with cats and birds?
i’ve done them all before
Kendall knows he is a bear because he shambles about, “getting into blueberries here and bee stings there,” and because he is pudgy and has unkempt hair. People often fear bears, because they don’t understand them--but all they want is to nibble and forage in the woods, to hibernate peacefully through the long Maine winters.
Besides bears, he feels a kinship with things that are caged, physically or metaphorically: women, and Russia. During the height of his Russian obsession he and Phyllis lived in Richmond, Maine, home to one of the largest Russian communities in the country, including a Romanov princess. From Kendall’s window, he could see the blue onion-shaped ornament of St. Alexander Nevsky, with its icons and mysteries. The Merriam library was so jammed with Russophilia that they retrofitted the porch to accommodate the groaning shelves.
Although he sometimes worried that that KGB might be wiretapping his typewriter, Russia tantalized him: her promise on the verge, so nearly missed, her vast darkened libraries, her long nights under the silence of snow.
Deep in a winter night, many years ago, the little town of Richmond was asleep.
The Kennebec flowed dark and rushing, and the corner store’s fluorescent beer signs had been turned off. There was a light on upstairs in a little house. Anyone who chanced to walk by would have seen Kendall through the window, bent over his stereo, broadcasting music into the ether. The sound waves traveled out through the bright window and over sleeping Maine, across the ocean, through the sunrise, across Europe and into Mongolia, where perhaps it was day, and where the Mongolians in the windy plains had turned their listening faces up to the sun. He sent them the most beautiful music he could imagine, and perhaps they heard, and perhaps they were grateful.
After many years, Kendall and Phyllis have returned to live in the white wooden house where Kendall grew up, with a wide view out onto Rockland Harbor, its sailboats and its ship works. His days are as slow and shuffling as his footsteps. The meds make him sleep until ten or eleven, and then he eats an enormous bowl of oatmeal with soy milk and lots of raisins, and feeds the cats. During the day he reads the Bangor Daily News, spy novels, emails. He likes how “the words, like ants, climb out of the book, across his hand, up his arm into his ear hole to his brain.” He cooks for Phyllis, in the warm little kitchen with the copper table. Katherine Hepburn’s brownie recipe is still a specialty, but he also makes Chinese food, or buttermilk biscuits with clumsy paws, spilling the salt over the teaspoon and into the sink.
Until a few months ago, Phyllis would crisscross the state of Maine for her job as a child social worker, leaving Kendall alone during the day. Now, she’s finding other projects to absorb her energy: crafting small sculptures out of trinkets, disparate broken objects that she fuses with order and hidden meaning.
The house is just the right size for the two of them. They have no children; a doctor gave Kendall a vasectomy by mistake when he was two years old. Instead, Phyllis tucked all of Maine’s children under her wings; sometimes during client visits the small ones would wriggle into her lap and stay for a little while.
Kendall wonders what kind of a father he’d have been, in and out of the hospital. He wonders what it feels like to touch a pregnant woman’s stomach—would it be soft, or taut like a peach? He knows it would be warm. But the universe has its reasons, perhaps. They have more freedom, this way, to stay up writing and reading, reading and writing, late, late into the night.
Kendall writes upstairs, in the bedroom. Sometimes he scratches out poems by hand, but mostly he writes on a Smith Corona Coronet Electric typewriter. He writes to music—the Gypsy Kings or Django Reinhardt or Joni Mitchell. At the bottom of each page, he notes the time, the place, and what he’s listening to, situating the poem in a particular moment—like:
Home July 2, 2012 12:35 AM Listening to Phyllis read a book about Afghan women
Home February 25, 2011 12:15 PM Listening to Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill
Home May 25, 2010 9:02 PM Listening to the dishwasher
Sometimes Kendall tells people about the schizophrenia/bipolar/manic depression/whatever. This shocks them, he knows, but sometimes he can’t help himself. He has learned that people don’t always want to know the truth.
Sometimes, though, it is his civic duty to tell the truth, and on occasion he calls up the power-hoarders—the NSA, or the CIA, or Blackwater—and reads it to whoever will listen.
The other day, he called the White House, cleared his throat, and read this:
Flag of a New Nation
Wouldn’t it be great
if we would take the colors
of this $6.46 meal
pale green soup
yellow corn muffin
cream colored soy milk
rich brown lemon splash tea (iced)
and make a new flagwithout those symbols of war
the reds, blues and stars
a nation which does not march into wasting battle…
There was complete silence and he thought the receptionist had hung up; but then she said thank you, yes, she had heard. She didn’t see it for the love poem it was, of course, but what greater love is there than the hope for an end to war?
Broadcasting his messages from his little white house on the coast of Maine, through the telephone wires and into that other White House, he doesn’t know for sure they’ll get through, if anyone’s listening, if it matters. But he feels that, somehow, it does.
September 16, 2009
I am writing to you because I am so concerned about the country’s future... However, I do not see how you can continue to work toward this goal in good conscience until we stop killing people in Iraq and Afghanistan. […]
I just hope that you can see the error of your ways and recall our troops and weapons that are doing so much harm to ordinary people. I am quite certain that if you did this we would be able to afford great health care for Americans and the rest of the world—giving life instead of evil destruction.
Kendall A. Merriam
November 17, 2009
Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with me. I value your comments and inquiries. […]
To learn more about my Administration or to contact me in the future, please visit . Thank you again for writing.
His mind is full of wonderful and terrible things, he says.
“When the mania comes, it seems like I can do anything, I can think anything, I can write anything.” In an anthology called The Construction of Madness, Kendall wrote: “I see visions, taste, smell, hear and touch things which apparently are not really there. I’ve seen visions of incredibly beautiful women turn into monsters…”
Wonderful and terrible things.
Sometimes Kendall wonders whether or not the medications he takes have changed his brain, flattened his delirious creativity. They probably have. He has a meditator’s deep calm, which might or might not be because of the meds. “I’ve taken literally millions upon millions of milligrams of antipsychotic drugs,” he says. “Millions of milligrams.” But there might be an upside: he theorizes that the Thorazine, the Haldol, Artane, Valproate, all the chemicals that have swum through his brain opened up new channels, carved new pathways for the muse to travel.
Was it the meds that cracked his consciousness a little wider to the whispers of the muses, or was his mind a little more open to begin with? And what happens when you open your mind too far—can you close it up again when you want some peace and quiet? For the rest of us, once a mind is closed, is it closed forever to the whispers of muses, the vibrations of the stars?
One afternoon, years ago, as Kendall and Phyllis were settling into their new house in Richmond, the ladies from the Methodist congregation paid a call. Kendall and Phyllis had both been brought up Christian, and though their views on religion were evolving, they thought they’d give the Methodists a try.
The Methodist ladies chatted with Kendall about the weather, and finally the good women arrived at the purpose of their visit: if Kendall really loved Jesus, they said, he would get rid of those medications and put his faith in God. He politely ushered them out; that was the end of churchgoing. Now, it’s just the occasional Mormon who comes knocking; he sends them away with copies of God is a Fox.
Foxes are the gods of the animal kingdom; all bears know this to be true. Kendall is either an animist or a pantheist, or both; “I just find it a hell of a lot more fun,” he says. “You don’t have to listen to sermons, don’t have to pray to Mecca five times a day. You can be whatever you want to be whenever you want to be.”
His poems are his practice; he wrote his way out of the cage.
Sometimes Kendall wonders what will happen to his poetry route when he’s no longer able to walk. Secretly, he hopes that some young person will take it over, but he doesn’t know who. So he goes to the doctor, drinks soy milk, and works on his balance. He dreams of foxes in snow and of Poland, where he and Phyllis will travel next year for the first time and where he’ll lay an offering at Janina’s grave. Phyllis will keep editing his poems and cleaning up after he makes biscuits, because she, the original muse, brings order and beauty to chaos. Kendall will write haikus to the moon and to the waitresses at restaurants, and he will keep calling the White House, because there is still war.
All things are muses, all things are holy: animals, the full moon over the bay, nights so cold your eyelashes freeze. Lobster bisque is holy, and Django Reinhardt’s Gypsy jazz, and the rounded stomach of a pregnant woman, with a tiny life warm inside. Even Barack Obama is holy, though he’s part of the military-industrial complex. The day’s work of the lobsterman, the postal clerk, the painter, the model, the bank teller who says he has no time for poetry. The jewelry maker, the cashier, the sellers of hot dogs, of used books, the brewers of bitter coffee. And until he goes to join the Great Cave Bear, Kendall will write them into his poems late at night in his house by the sea, listening to Phyllis breathe.
Produced at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies