Bob Priest’s daughter Susan called me recently on a Thursday evening to discuss which day, the upcoming Saturday or Sunday, would be best to hold a poetry reading for her dad’s pleasure.
More than anything what he enjoyed at this time in his life was listening to poetry, so an afternoon of poetry readings by all her poetry writing friends and accompanied by chocolate and wine would not only be appropriate — because her dad’s favorite indulgence was chocolate — but also festive and irresistible. It seemed an inspired idea, all the more so because I had been planning to read poetry to Bob on my own, but one thing and another kept coming up and I hadn’t yet managed to do it. Now I could put 3 p.m. Saturday the 13th on my calendar as a sure thing. I was elated.
Bob had Parkinson’s as well as glaucoma, a combination that made it difficult for him to write or read the way he had become accustomed to doing since he and his wife Karen moved here in retirement back in 2003. Not that reading or writing were anything new to Bob. As a former behavioral scientist who had taught statistics and psychology at USC, done research on values, humor, and leadership at West Point, he had, of course, written and published numerous technical reports and articles. That he also wrote poetry, however, was not something I knew until I got to know him once he enrolled in a writing memoir class I taught at WNC.
That was easily 10 years ago and at the time the only unusual things I noticed about Bob were his hands trembled a little in passing out papers and he’d periodically get up and stand (to stretch his legs, I assumed) and later brought in a big cushion to sit on. Almost everybody in the class wanted a “cushy” chair on which to sit, but others were not as resourceful as Bob.
Later I would learn Bob had accumulated more than 470 hours of participation in critique groups, workshops, and non-credit classes, but when he first audited the memoir class, and later a writing poetry class, all I was aware of was he was insightful and delightful as a “student.” From his memoirs, I learned about his proficiency in Latin, his courtship of Karen, the birth and precociousness of his children Susan and Joel. In his poetry I saw the structural underpinnings of his thought and the depths of his feelings. His sense of humor was sly, sometimes wicked, and usually pointed at himself. He didn’t shy away from or gloss over what he found difficult to bear — the demise of his physical self, the loss of Karen, the inevitable narrowing of his world.
Bob was my colleague and friend as well. A member of Ash Canyon Poets, Bob experimented successfully with all kinds of verse, some of it witty word play, some soulfully sad. In Readers’ Theater Bob read movingly and persuasively roles written by Ibsen and Chekhov and others until his eyesight made it difficult to distinguish letters.
It was Friday morning and I had been looking through various poems for the next day’s reading for Bob when I received word he had died a few hours earlier. The poetry reading was now moved to Sunday. It was heartfelt, honest, and funny, everything Bob would have approved and enjoyed. I just wish I could have heard him laugh one more time and given him one more hug.
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.