Sunday, November 13, 2011

Ken Probert

Yesterday was Ken Probert's funeral.  That the Speers Funeral Chapel was full; that the groups represented included a large family (the men wearing brightly-coloured Converse sneakers), many U of R faculty and students, Moose Javians, the Regina writing community, and old time friends and drinking buddies; that the word "generous" was on many people's lips, but that we also said there were parts of his life that eluded us--speaks of his complexity and of a largeness in his life that I don't think he entirely recognized or believed in.

Nick Ruddick came the closest to admitting the mystery of Ken when he said that although Ken regularly dropped the Sunday New York Times or a bag full of New Yorkers on his front porch, although they were hired at the same time after spending a year teaching together at the University of Manitoba, although they worked together for 28 years, Nick didn't know Ken particularly well.  Nick read "regrets" from people like Joan Givner, who remembered Ken's skills in the kitchen and his great recipe collection, and from Bela Szabados, who talked of what it was like to work with Ken on a collection of essays and of the myriad kinds of intelligence he brought to that task.  A former student who became a close friend, Rebecca Gibbons, spoke of Ken's generosity and insight as a professor.  Ken's U of S roommate, Rob Pletch, talked of their post-B.A. days seeing the world together, sharing the fact that Ken had spent two weeks in a cave in Crete--something I certainly never knew. Rob also talked about how Ken would throw himself into projects at Rob's Kenosee Lake cottage, but that he was also ready with a critique of the project--something that seemed more like Ken.  So we glimpsed, in the former part of our celebration of his life:  Ken the encouraging presence for creative writers; Ken the colleague who always knew what one was interested in and brought books, titles, newspapers to your door;  Ken the cook; Ken the editor; Ken the guy's guy who liked football, sailing, projects at the lake.

When Ken retired in 2010, I was asked at the last minute to speak; this was no stretch because I'd long had two favourite Ken Probert stories.  One involved a graduate student of Michael Trussler's who needed an emergency loan for a hearing test.  Ken took $100 out of his wallet, handed it to Michael, and said "I don't want this back, and I don't want anyone to know where it came from."  This was vintage Ken:  the generosity and the self-effacing humility.  The other was frankly autobiographical, but describes an important facet of Ken's personality.  I walked into his office one day and said--not very articulately--"Ken, I can't do this."  Ken closed his door, seated me in his comfy chair, and said "Kathleen, you have to stop trying to be so perfect."  In spite of not giving him much to go in with my cri de coeur, Ken knew exactly what needed saying.  I think Ken frequently knew how it was with us, his colleagues and his students.  For some reason I can only guess about, he didn't want us to know how it was with him.

Ken loved beauty.  In spite of his colour-blindness, it was clear from his conversation that he knew the great works of art and the role their iconography played in our cultural lives.  He loved music passionately and with a catholic taste I hope to be able to emulate when I'm eighty.  (I'll need the next twenty years to work on it.)  He loved Bach's music in particular, especially the Cantatas, and phone calls from Ken were often accompanied by the gorgeous sound of his carefully-constructed stereo system.  He could suss out the beauty from a line of Yeats or Eliot; he grasped and revelled in the beauty of Henry James's thick and complex world view.  He loved the contemporary world of ideas; so frequently a Saturday or Sunday phone call came from Ken telling me about a Canadian author who was being interviewed on CBC Radio.  And I think he simply loved having all this at his fingertips.  Rob spoke of Ken's pipe--an early affectation perhaps, for the man of culture?  Yet Rob was right:  he was never arrogant or elitist about what he knew. 

I've known about Ken's death for five days now, and I still can't take it in.  It saddens me enormously, often when I'm in the kitchen doing something absolutely pedestrian like chopping vegetables with one of the several knives he gave me and think that Ken will never again be part of the beautiful, magical dailiness of life that is sometimes a matter of getting by and sometimes a celebration. At the end of her collection of poems, Men in the Off Hours, Anne Carson writes of thinking about her mother's death at the same time she's looking at some Virginia Woolf manuscripts that have Woolf's cross-outs and revisions.  Carson writes

"Reading this, especially the cross-out line, fills me with a sudden understanding.  Crossouts are something you rarely see in published texts.  They are like death:  by a simple stroke--all is lost, yet still there.  For death although utterly unlike life shares a skin with it.  Death lines every moment of ordinary time.  Death hides right inside every shining sentence we grasped and had no grasp of.  Death is a fact....Crossouts sustain me now.  I search out and cherish them like old photographs of my mother in happier times.  It may be a stage of grieving that will pass.  It may be that I'll never again think of sentences unshadowed in this way.  It has changed me."

Perhaps Ken had insight into my moment of angst because he was also hard on himself.  Yet I've told the story of his comforting words to several graduate students who have gotten to that point in their writing where they're convinced they have nothing important to say.  The story almost always brings first tears and then relief.  Our stories about Ken will remain the crossed-out words that are sustaining.  Please add your own stories here if you wish.

I called the Saskatchewan Writers Guild on Thursday to see if they had any photographs of Ken hosting one of the many reading series, offering introductions that were insightful, quirky, and always always generous.  They could only give me a photograph to "publish" on my blog if they knew who had taken it, and this came down to the very dated photo you see above.  Ken was the host of the Signature Reading Series at the MacKenzie Art Gallery.  I had been here only a year and was reading from my first book of poetry.  I remember him saying that I already had a reputation as a fine teacher--words that encouraged me in some of the dicey moments we all have in the classroom.  The other people are Rosemary Sullivan and Brenda Riches, who also died far too young, on the left.  The photograph was taken by Christiane Laucht Hilderman in 1991.

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