WMD: A Memoir

by Richard Harteis

Poets’ Choice. 202 pages.
A review by Grace Cavalieri

The whole world Richard Harteis occupies is distilled into one volume. A writer’s alchemy.

I’ve been reading WMD for a couple of days and stayed home, today, expressly, to live with it all day long. Immersion in another person’s life is a way of living twice. Today is also the birthday of nostalgia-machine, Frank Albert Sinatra, providing an appropriate soundtrack on the radio.

WMD stands for white matter disease providing a through line for the narrative, as we follow Harteis’ interest in his brain for the past few years. The book’s cover is a series of brain scans, MRIs that Richard has turned into happy and sad faces. This is so Harties-esque. The deterioration of primary cells becomes a poetic foil for a work of art. And who can think of a better use for them? I wanted to sit with this writing for unbroken hours, not during commercials, because this book demands that kind of respect. It’s not an insignificant journey, this one toward mortality or immortality — and the panache to face it is found right here.

Harteis always has his gaydar on, finding love in strange places and sometimes he’s prurient and sometimes he’s pure. Sex, the great arbiter of well-being, and the fountain of youth, keeps flowing here — even with a few photos, not pornographic, more poetic graphic, but put it up on the shelf away from the children.

Also included are photos of a lifetime of friends, documenting some of the most inspired freewheeling writing you’ll read this year: letters, ruminations, philosophy

Richard Harteis is blessed with the gift of effortlessness; his pen does not miss a beat. His line describes, exhibits, plunges; his excursions are verbal handsprings somehow nailed to the page. I can’t imagine how it feels to have words go just the way one likes them every minute.

Harteis tells the tale of his 36-year monogamous relationship with Pulitzer Prize-winning former U.S. Poet Laureate William Meredith, who was a friend to us all. The story has been told in previous books, Marathon (prose); Revenant (poetry); plus others, but this memoir expands on many intentions and understandings that have come after the party is over.

WMD is rethinking of a careful existence with a loved one after he’s gone, the hidden fear that we can never love again (or be loved), the many substitutes and stand-ins. The people who Richard beds, he truly loves; yet, they’re seen as the aftereffects of some motion that will never again be brought up to speed. Yet he tries.

Harteis gets up in the morning and does his International Thing, in Paris, Bulgaria, Connecticut, Florida, with in-between loves, and a sweet female companion. He runs a Foundation, publishes poets, gives national awards, mounts art exhibits, schmoozes with the glitterati, the great and the near grateful.

There is nice literary history woven in with Meredith’s old friends, W.H. Auden, James Merrill, Josephine Jacobsen. I might as well get Poets & Writers directory instead of trying to list them, because William and Richard “lived the life” on every continent with great poetry icons.

WMD: A Memoir tracks these times through to the present condition: white brain disease, with truck-stop love, marvelous poetry — his and others — and sorry, if it is a cliché — but a final search to find out who Richard Harteis really is, other than a tricky thyroid condition, and atrial fibrillation. This book is never boring, not a second: at times it floats in beauty, quiet and reflective; each day is a foreshadowing of something that cannot quite be named; and people are omens for the living and the dead in a life etched in finite time. Other times, it’s funny and raunchy.

Most of Richard’s friends are handsomely quoted, photoed, and praised — a few doctors’ assistants are scourged.

Another note: My computer’s Dragon voice recognition hears Harteis as “ Heart Ties,” and maybe the dragon is right.

Whether he’s at black-tie affairs or wearing a Speedo — Richard Harteis escapes death every day through poetic sustenance until finally his illusions become reality and, thankfully for the reader, stylish ones at that.

Grace Cavalieri is celebrating 37 years on-air with her series for public radio, “The Poet and the Poem,” now from the Library of Congress. She’s written 16 books of poems and 26 produced plays. She holds the 2013 “George Garrett Award” from the Associated Writing Programs and the 2013” Allen Ginsberg Award” for poetry. She also holds the CPB silver medal. Grace is a monthly poetry columnist/reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books. Her latest books are The Mandate of Heaven (Bordighera Press) and The Man Who Got Away ( Scarith Books).

This review first appeared in the January, 2015 issue of the Washington Independent Review of Books.