Life is real: Chapter Two: Author hopes his story lives on through his poetry

By Ken Raymond - Staff Writer Modified: February 23, 2009 at 8:24 am •  Published: February 22, 2009
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photo - Jim Chastain receives a hug from his grandmother during his birthday party at Full Circle Books in Oklahoma City on Dec. 10, 2008. Photo by John Clanton
Jim Chastain receives a hug from his grandmother during his birthday party at Full Circle Books in Oklahoma City on Dec. 10, 2008. Photo by John Clanton

Chaz, short for Chastain, changed relatively innocuous tunes, such as Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” into hilarious novelty songs so obscene that he and his classmates will not repeat the lyrics for outsiders — even though they still know the words.

“Most of them were lyrics you could only sing among the guys,” says Don Greiner, Jim’s big brother in the fraternity. “Not all of them, but most.”

When Jim was a junior, he and some fraternity brothers put together a song-and-dance number for the Varsity Revue, an OSU talent show. What song they performed and how far they advanced seems to change depending on who you talk to, but two things remain constant: Jim was one of the lyricists, and he and LeAnn met as a result of the show.

Their romance didn’t bloom until later, but the Varsity Revue was a turning point. In years to come, they’d marry, have children, earn higher degrees. Jim would turn his language skills into a lucrative career as an attorney, and he’d moonlight as a movie critic, poet and author.

He never earned a royalty check from any of his twisted lyrics. He’s not as well known as Weird Al. Still, Jim’s songs live on.

“To this day,” Greiner says, “my wife will get on me because I always sing Chaz’s lyrics to songs, and she can’t remember the real words.”

They soon gained a musical
reputation, and former friends
looked on from a distance,
not wanting to be tarnished.

(from “Playing the Harp,” by Jim Chastain)

Barreling along the edge of a precipice in a battered Mercury sedan, Nathan Brown, Jim’s partner in poems, thought he was going to die.

Death had quit being an academic matter several miles back. Now it was a real possibility flirting with an upgrade to probability — and not in the long run, but soon. Perhaps any second.

From the passenger seat, he could only watch in terror as his buddy, the one-armed poet, drove them higher into the Colorado mountains on a narrow two-lane road with few guardrails. Rain poured down, obscuring the signs that warned of falling rocks, and the edge of the road opened onto space. He was acutely aware that Jim was new to driving with one hand and that he could activate the windshield wipers only by pushing his hand through the wheel and steering with his forearm.

“I was looking out the windows down and down as far as the eye could see, trying to see how far we had to fall,” Nathan says.

Yet he was laughing. So was Jim. It was the absurdity of it all. If they slid off the road, they would literally die for poetry.

Could they be any more cliché?

Jim and Nathan met at a Baptist church in Norman. They became close friends in 2003 when they bonded over shared literary interests and decided to work together to break into Oklahoma’s poetry scene. Over the next two years, they hit the road together, reading at the same gigs and establishing their bona fides.

This journey in July 2005 was part of their poetic mission. They were making an 860-mile pilgrimage to Ouray, Colo., for a workshop taught by Pulitzer prize-winning poet Stephen Dunn, whom both admired.

When they swept past Billy Goat Gruff’s Beer Garden, they knew they’d arrived safely in Ouray. Nathan’s knuckles filled with color as he relaxed.

They’d survived something together, laughing all the way. They made a memory — one that didn’t involve cancer or hospitals or grief.

“We’ve had a couple of teary moments over beers in tiny Mexican restaurants,” Nathan says now, “but for the most part, with Jim and me, it’s poetry and writing and performing and going after it. It’s sort of an in-the-meantime thing. You know. Cancer’s coming, but in the meantime, we have stuff to do.”

Fifteen hours in a Mercury
with the preacher’s kid
heading west by northwest
in search of poetry.
Over the course of that
conversation-packed day, as
the cool Oklahoma morning
was overwhelmed
by a thick Texas heat,
which later succumbed
to the thin mountain air,
we saw it all.

(from “Driving to Ouray,” by Jim Chastain)

Dorothy Alexander can’t look at Jim without seeing another man, a younger man, the one who broke her heart.

“I can’t tell you how much I love him,” she says, and for a moment it’s unclear whether she’s talking about Jim or about her son, Kim Alexander, who died in 1989.

Jim and Kim. Two names separated by a single letter; two lives joined in Dorothy’s heart.

When he was 36, Kim learned he had AIDS. A Vietnam veteran, he’d suffered for years before being diagnosed at Oklahoma City’s VA hospital. By then, the disease had demolished his immune system, leaving him with bleak prospects. Dorothy, an attorney in Roger Mills County at the time, rented an apartment in Oklahoma City. She clung to Kim as he grew weaker, trying to find an escape clause that would allow him to live.

She’d tried the same thing years earlier. Dorothy opposed the Vietnam conflict, and she saved enough money to finance a move to Canada if Kim, a pacifist, got drafted. His number came up the first day of the draft. She was ready to leave the country, but he refused to run away. He served four years as a medic.

Fighting for his life, he again refused to back down. He told Dorothy it was pointless to search for a loophole. He was going to die. Best to deal with it.

Somehow, it seemed their roles had reversed. He’d become the parent. She was the child.

He died of complications from AIDS on Dec. 17, 1989. Dorothy thought she’d failed him.

About 15 years later, Jim entered her life. Cancer had already entered his. By then, both had become voices in the state’s literary scene. Dorothy ran Village Books Press in Cheyenne. Jim contacted her for an article he was writing about poetry in Oklahoma.

“I love books,” Dorothy says. “I loved the smell of them even before I could read. Jim is that kind of guy. He loves everything about books.”

They became friends. She published his poetry books and kept in constant touch with him through his long cancer battle — all the while feeling a connection between him and her son.

“They didn’t look alike,” says Dorothy, 74. “But they were both roughly the same age when this happened. They’re both kind of non-macho types, you know. They’re gentle and ... sensitive. And Jim, he’s very kind to old ladies and dogs. A lot of people can’t see old women. They’re not on the radar screen. People look right through you. He’s not that kind of person.”

As the end of his story draws closer, Dorothy hopes she’ll be stronger now than she was 20 years ago.

“This is like another chance to get it right,” she says, “to do better this time than I did last time with Kim. It’s become sort of a personal thing for me, a mother thing.”

She loves them both.

Oh, how she laughed there in her chair,
rocking back and forth with one bare foot
sticking straight out across the foot rest.
During a game of cards, the laughing
never stopped, as if all of life was laughter.
But there were tears too.
No one loved her man more.
God, how she cried, wailed even,
when he left this earth.
She despaired the coming years
of loneliness.
(from “Song of the Matriarch,” by Jim Chastain)

Jim closes the poetry book, steps back from the podium.

For a moment, there is silence and time enough to take him in. He is beaming, transformed, looking healthier than he has in weeks. His skin glows. His face has filled out. Somehow he is more than he was before the reading began. Shades of all he is and all he used to be are collected here in one small man. Somewhere in time, he’s teasing his sisters, breaking the rules. Somewhere he’s driving through the mountains, blind to the danger. Somewhere he’s seeing so clearly it makes a grieving mother cry.

Applause begins, not slowly but all at once. Jim disappears into hugs and handshakes.


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