Stranger at the gate?
Seeing the man again at the gate to this year's Dodge Poetry Festival startled me, partly because I had not seen him since we drove him home from the last festival two years ago, and partly because he looked so thin.
Whereas I had reviewed his poetry as part of my newspaper coverage, his appearance had always defied the stereotype of poet. He did not have the feminine features so commonly painted over poets by the general public. Indeed, Jack looked more like what the public might think of as a truck driver with a rugged face that would have made the U.S. Marines proud -- features overly emphasized in September 2002 by his loss of weight.
Like most poets I reviewed, Jack didn't always agree with my interpretations of his work. But he told me often my opinions made him think.
Until our last encounter at the 2000 Dodge, we had remained professional acquaintances, each of us nodding as we passed each other on the streets of
Hoboken or Jersey
Then, we found him wandering the muddy paths of
the last day of the 2000
Dodge. He was searching for an editor friend of his who had promised him a ride
back to the city. When his plight became clear to us, we agreed to give him a
ride home -- since we lived then only a few blocks from the apartment he
Perhaps inspired by the weekend of poetry, we found ourselves talking literature the whole ride back -- with brief bios as to where we had grown up, and from what past we derived our inspiration. In watching him wander away from our car after dropping him off in the city, I felt a connection with him that I described as spiritual.
He must have felt as much because seeing us two years later, he greeted us as old friends. When I asked if he would be reading at the Dodge this year, he shook his head.
"No," he mumbled, "I'm only working here this year. But it feels good to get out, even if it makes me weak. I have to sit down a lot."
Jack told us he had moved out of the city and to his hometown in central
an unbearably peaceful place he had struggled most of his life to escape.
"The town is a mile square," he said. "It has lots of Victorian houses, and the houses are full of families. You can't see a yuppie anywhere."
He said he had moved back home to recuperated and that even as he stood at this year's Dodge, he had just recovered from a bout of pneumonia.
"I miss the city," he said. "I miss being about to go out in the middle of the night for a cup of espresso. I miss the noise you hear all night."
Then, overcome with weariness, he had to sit and fell back into a chair someone had provided for him as others took up his duties collecting tickets.
"I miss the people," he said, and predicted a time when he would feel up to returning to our part of the world. "I'm getting stronger every day. You wouldn't know it to look at me, but I've gained weight. I was down to 90 pounds for a while. And I've been below detection for seven months."
We wished him well and then moved onto the grounds. Yet I could not stop thinking of him or that long ride home two years earlier when we had shared our artistic visions, and whether or not we would see him again at the next Dodge, or would we have to stir him up out of the ashes of his poetry?
Back from the dead Wiler's poetry deals with struggle to survive
For poet Jack Wiler, the decade since his previous book has been a struggle between life and death - literally.
"I had a sense that spiritual beings were watching over me, and that I was being given a choice. I could choose to live or die, and I chose to live," Wiler said during a recent interview.
Four years ago, Wiler was diagnosed with AIDS, a moment that changed his life as well as his poetry. "I had no health insurance, and I didn't feel sick, so I didn't go to a doctor," he said.
It was a huge mistake, eventually causing massive loss of muscle tissue and a journey close to the edge of death. While his new book, "Fun Being Me," published by CavenKerry Press, is not entirely about his near-death experience, many of the new poems have been touched by the angel of death, giving them a significantly different flavor from poems published in his first book, "I Have No Clue." The humor in his new book has an edge, a sense of having come through Hades and back. "The bulk of these were written between 1998 and 2004," Wiler said.
Although a resident of
for most of his adult life,
he grew up in Wenonah, N.J, to which he returned during his illness. Hudson
Angels in Wiler's life
The new book, Wiler said, is about redemption, about finding spirituality and a larger purpose in life. "I came back from death," he said. "When I got sick, I had hallucinations where I saw angels and demons. I can't see the film Angels in
It's too close to reality for me." Going home provided him with
perspective about why he had left, saying it was a good place to grow up or
raise children, but not a good place for him. "I need the city. I need to
be around Spanish and black people. I don't want to have to drive 45 minutes to
get Indian food," he said.
In poems such as "Dream at the Gate to Hell," Wiler explores this near death experience in a series of metaphoric images that combines his battle with illness with the geography of his upbringing. The work recalls the sounds and sights of rural and urban
Jersey, from the "boom, boom of a manhole
cover" to "a stream in summer filled with floating turtles." In
another poem, "Flying Under Duress," Wiler resists death, "I
wasn't ready to go. I wasn't ready to die. I wasn't ready to jump off
roofs," he writes.
He also talks about how life and work ought to be. "People don't die working the copiers. If the door opens there's a floor on the other side. The worst thing about work is that it's boring. Not frightening." Wiler is often funny, but his talent lay in the ability to use metaphor to convey dual meanings. And although each poem seems to take death seriously, you can hear Wiler chuckling in the background as well, as if after coming out the other side he mocks the devil from his new found safety.
A working writer
A serious writer since 1978, Wiler is best known locally for serving as editor for six years on the Hoboken-based Long Shot Magazine, through which he worked with some of the best contemporary poets, including
Danny Shot and Bayonne's Herschel
Silverman. Wiler also visits schools in New Jersey
as a visiting poet for the Geraldine Dodge Foundation, and has been a featured
poet at its every-two-year Waterloo Poetry Festival in Stanhope, as well as
serving as a group leader for the Foundations seminars for high school
"Jack Wiler's poems are rock-bottom genuine, totally direct, and disarmingly moving. He's the Nazim Hikmet of
his poems are full of great love for the broken world, great love for his
fallen fellow human beings, and great rage at the inequity of things,"
wrote Mark Doty, one of the most distinguished of contemporary American poets.
Typical of his wit, Wiler said he was pleased with the quote, but said he had to look up what Nazim Hikmet meant.
Hoboken to 33rd
While sick, Wiler never stopped writing. He set himself the task of writing a poem a day during his daily work commute to
"At first I wrote about riding to work, then after a while I started
writing about other things," he said. Wiler didn't want the book to only
focus on his disease; it was his editor who asked for more material on that
aspect. His editor then reshaped the structure of the book in a way that amazed
"I had intended to present the poems in chronological order," Wiler said. "The book is in five parts - like acts or musical movements - each one mirrors the other so that when you read one section, you get a sample of the whole book. I was surprised. It makes me look good. I think of it as a work of art." For the perpetually self-effacing Wiler, this is high praise indeed, and has inspired him to consider possibly staging the work in the future.
Jack Wiler's new book "Fun Being Me" is available now. For more information on the writer, visit: www.jackwiler.com.
Poet Jack Wiler dead at 57
Jersey City/Hoboken-based poet Jack Wiler once claimed he had come back from the dead. This was because he had been diagnosed with AIDS and, lacking health insurance, failed to get it treated early, causing massive loss of muscle tissue and a journey that brought him close to death.
On Oct. 20, Wiler died at 57, leaving behind a legacy of quality literature that included a poetic account of his battle with AIDS.
"I had a sense that spiritual beings were watching over me, and that I was being given a choice. I could choose to live or die, and I chose to live," Wiler said during an interview with the Hudson Reporter in 2006.